Date of Award

Fall 10-1-2021

Document Type


Degree Name

Doctor of Philosophy (PhD)



First Advisor

Klein, Jennifer


Why did teachers’ long campaign to fund schools with progressive income taxes on the rich fall short? Labor-liberals hoped to equalize opportunity for students by shifting school taxes from local communities like Detroit and Los Angeles to the states. Businessmen and conservatives instead centralized cuts by changing how budget decisions are made, imposing constitutional limits to slow the growth rate of state government. Tax limits are distinct from tax cuts. Tax the Rich builds on the established literature about the grassroots politics of education, and moves in new directions by centering the agency of organized interests—teachers unions, business associations, and farmers organizations—powerful enough to build enduring coalitions and to structure fiscal options. The story begins in 1930, when the Great Depression turned farmers against the property tax, recast business boosters as tax limiters, and forced teachers to defend school finance; it ends in 1980, when tax revolts went national with former California governor Ronald Reagan’s election as president. Michigan and California, laboratories for tax limitation campaigns and educational court cases, are the reference points. After property owners defaulted on their local taxes in the early 1930s, and later voted down renewals and increases during the 1960s, liberal and labor organizers searched for alternative taxes based on ability to pay while conservative and business operatives persuaded voters to constitutionally tie legislators’ purse strings. Paying for education in a democracy at times requires antidemocratic decisions, on left and right, by labor and business. Tax the Rich argues resources never matched Americans’ ambitions to make schools the hidden welfare state.