SHOULD Philadelphia reform its tax structure and allow its citizens to add up all they contribute to the city and figure out their own taxes based on those contributions?

That would mean that the ideal citizen - say, one who pays high wage and property taxes, as well as volunteers in the community and is kind to neighbors - would be able to weigh all those contributions and set a lower rate than others who don't do as much.

We didn't think so.

But a new study released by a coalition of 12 higher-education institutions argues otherwise by suggesting that they make so many contributions to the city that they shouldn't be asked for anything more.

To be sure, their case is compelling: institutions like Temple, Drexel, Penn and others are big employers, they give the city prestige, plus their workers pay wage taxes. They are key to the many things that make the city great. Many are wealthy. But they are exempt from paying property taxes, and the school budget crisis has prompted renewed calls for payment in lieu of taxes (PILOTS) that many other cities impose on their nonprofit institutions.

Hence, the new study, produced by Econsult Solutions, which attempts to put a price tag on all that the schools contribute, which they reckon totals $641 million a year in scholarships, community services, public safety and other resources.

The report calls this "the Philadelphia model," to distinguish it from other cities that demand more from their educational and nonprofit institutions. The Philadelphia model "differs from relationships in other cities between government and nonprofits where controversy, confrontation and litigation often follow in the wake of municipal demands for increasing financial support from the nonprofit sector." That vaguely ominous language citing confrontation and litigation appears throughout the report. The implication: We're doing enough, don't mess with us.

The report is also fond of referencing the consensus and collaboration between the higher-ed institutions and the city, and how mutually beneficial things are. Except, these institutions get to decide what to contribute, as well as assign value to those contributions.

Meanwhile, the city is starved for cash for its schools. It seems especially ironic that the school fiscal crisis is not more compelling to institutions devoted to education.

The economic impact of the universities producing the report (as well as the many nonprofits) are extraordinary. But the value of citizenship - whether individual or institutional - is more than economic. In the case of the colleges and universities, it can also be symbolic. Institutions of higher learning could signal the importance of education by going beyond what they decide they want to contribute to individual schools and helping the district as a whole. There could be creative approaches to accomplishing this: For example, have universities and other nonprofits underwrite the $12 million book and supply budget of the schools, as suggested by axisPhilly. Or add a small "public education" surcharge to the tuition bills of the 136,000 college students in the city. Besides the money collected, it would remind students that they are part of a city and that they have a role in making it and all of its educational institutions better.