April 08, 2015
Tulane Law student Emily Von Qualen (L ’16) helps demystify taxes for civics students at New Orleans New Orleans Charter Science and Mathematics High School through Professor Marjorie Kornhauser’s TaxJazz program.
Who bears the heaviest income tax burden under a progressive — or regressive tax scheme? Which taxes fund Louisiana public schools? How’s a levy unlike a levee?
And even more perplexing: how do you get teenagers to care about taxes?
Tulane Law students tackled those questions and many more this semester, teaching a weeklong crash-course in tax systems and policy to New Orleans high schoolers through TaxJazz, The Tax Literacy Project, a program initiated by law Professor Marjorie Kornhauser.
The goal of TaxJazz, now in its second year partnering with the New Orleans Charter Science and Mathematics High School, is to demystify taxes for teens who see their parents preparing income tax filings and sometimes get their own W-2s from after-school jobs.
The TaxJazz curriculum, which Kornhauser wrote, with input from SciHigh civics teachers, moves from fundamentals like why taxes exist to trickier law and policy questions. Students explore how government should tax residents to pay for necessities like bridges and schools, what type of tax allocation system a community should use and how fairness can be maintained.
“The students were much more receptive than I expected,” said Emily Von Qualen (L ’16), who taught middle school before starting Tulane Law. “They even came up with the idea of taxing a percentage of people’s income before we brought it up. They’ve been very engaged.”
Through TaxJazz, Tulane Law volunteers, including Emily Von Qualen (L ’16), provided a weeklong crash course in tax concepts for high school students.
Law students who volunteered to teach through TaxJazz met with Kornhauser multiple times for preparation then taught different sections in teacher Sarah Cannon’s classroom every day for a week.
“It just clicked really well for me,” one high schooler said. “Having so many people come in to teach us and being so hands-on and interactive, it really made me like learning about taxes.”
Cannon said she liked the idea of presenting students with a topic that’s largely new to them. “It’s really interesting to see them go from zero knowledge base to grasping complex terms and concepts, like progressive and regressive taxes,” she said.
Meanwhile, the law student volunteers got a powerful skills-building exercise because they had to distill complicated material for non-lawyers.
“The students have to present difficult information in a very clear way to an audience that’s often confused and sometimes uninterested — much like a jury,” Kornhauser said. “They have to think on their feet and organize very complex information in a way that people who don’t know much about the topic can understand.”
James Long (L ’16) called it educational for him along with the high school students.
“TaxJazz was a wonderful experience,” he said. “The program is very organized, and it was an absolute blessing getting to work with local kids.”
Geena Yu (L ’15) said the high school students responded enthusiastically when the concepts were related to real-world events.
“Understanding tax can be difficult even as a legal tax student, but I thought Professor Kornhauser did a really good job of simplifying the concepts and prompting a discussion about ‘fairness’ and ‘equality’ that is important,” Yu said.
Others teaching were Rebecca Heilman, Kelly Parks and second-time volunteer Mia Lindell (all L '15). Former civics teacher Caroline Snyder, who helped Kornhauser develop the curriculum in 2014 and now is a Tulane MBA student, also made an appearance.
Kornhauser, a former public school teacher, said she wants to take the tax literacy program beyond New Orleans schools by making course materials, videos and games available online. She’s planning to expand TaxJazz in the fall to a Boston-area high school and said she hopes to eventually reach other schools and community groups nationwide.
(Note: This story was updated on April 9 to include the names of other participants in the program.)