As Senator Argall and I continue to push for elimination of school property taxes with passage of Senate Bill 76, I often think about the impact property has had throughout history.
A shortage of land, dismal living conditions, and lack of both religious freedom and economic opportunity led some Europeans to seek better opportunities. In 1585, a group of English investors sponsored settlers to colonize America. However, the British were unable to keep the Roanoke Colony supplied and those colonists disappeared waiting for provisions.
In 1607, the English made another attempt to establish an American colony, this time in the Chesapeake Bay. Jamestown nearly failed like Roanoke. However, the Virginia Company made an important change to help that colony survive and prosper: it permitted the colonists to own and work the land as their private property.
Property ownership became a strong allure for both those able to afford their way and those without the means. The latter became “indentured servants,” agreeing to work off the costs of their passage over a period of years to ultimately secure the goal of: fifty acres of land apiece and another fifty acres for every servant or relative brought at their own expense.
In 1620, another group of English, “Puritans” – English separatists seeking religious freedoms – first traveled to the Netherlands and then to Plymouth Bay to establish a model society or “Commonwealth.”
As devout Calvinists, these colonists did not believe good works would lead people to heaven. Rather, the Puritans hoped a moral society would demonstrate to themselves that they were part of God’s election. They built houses, farms, and villages with “commons” to live by their principles.
However, like Jamestown, the common sharing of land and wealth kept the Pilgrims from supporting themselves and by 1628 they divided the land and the livestock for private ownership. By the middle of the 17th Century almost all the common areas of New England were gone – transferred to private citizens.
Late in that Century, Englishman John Locke argued in his “Two Treatises of Government” that political society existed for the sake of protecting “property,” which he defined as a person’s “life, liberty, and estate.” Thomas Jefferson would use similar words in the Declaration of Independence: “We hold these truths to be self-evident, that all men are created equal, that they are endowed by their Creator with certain unalienable Rights, that among these are Life, Liberty and the pursuit of Happiness” [i.e., property].
George Mason would use similar language in drafting the Virginia Declaration of Rights: “THAT all men are by nature equally free and independent, and have certain inherent rights, of which, when they enter into a state of society, they cannot, by any compact, deprive or divest their posterity; namely, the enjoyment of life and liberty, with the means of acquiring and possessing property, and pursuing and obtaining happiness and safety.”
Mason’s words are similar to Article I, Section 1 of our Pennsylvania Constitution, “Inherent Rights of Mankind”: “All men are born equally free and independent, and have certain inherent and indefeasible rights, among which are those of enjoying and defending life and liberty, of acquiring, possessing and protecting property and reputation, and of pursuing their own happiness.”
While opponents of Senate Bill 76 argue it’s a huge shift from school property taxes to Sales and Personal Income Taxes, I submit the total elimination of school property taxes is much more in line with our history.