|SAVE OUR SCHOOLS!
April 14, 1997
Other questions asked
in this forum:
A prospective teacher asks about strategies to improve teacher quality. Are vouchers or school choice the answer? Is it time to rethink the traditional classroom structure? How do education labor unions effect the reform process? What role does parental participation play? How can communities foster constructive public dialogue on education issues? Additional questions and comments.
Return to the top page. A question from Jay Boshara of Athens, Ohio, asks:
I think that a major first step toward serious school reform should be equity funding. Given the present devolutionary political climate, it would be a mistake to implement change at the federal level. But, states should quit the bankrupt practice of school funding (around 40%) by property taxes, and fund schools on an equal per-student rate from a single state budget pot using an income tax or similar device. What do you think of this idea?
Dr. Doris Alvarez, Principal of Hoover High School, responds:
California funds on an equal per student rate from the state budget and it has its problems too, mostly loss of local control. With the Serrano decision, funding for schools moved to the state level and although we still pay property taxes, those taxes are distributed to other agencies: police, libraries, county agencies, etc.
Further, there are funding descrepancies with elementary, unified and high school districts being funded at different levels. The loss of local control has serious implications for how education is received and supported in the local community.
Mr. Michael Casserly of the Coucil of Great City Schools responds:
I agree with you that a major component of school reform in the United States should involve school finance. The current disparities in school funding across the country and within the individual states are a real disgrace.
Ohio, as you may know, recently took a major step in that regard in the case of DeRolph v. State of Ohio. The Ohio Supreme Court ruled that the state's school funding formula failed to meet the "thorough and efficient" standard set for public schools in the Ohio constitution. This case, and many like it, are often decided after it is demonstrated that the funding of a child's education is based inordinately on where he or she lives. And property taxes, as you have pointed out, often define that disparity.
The federal government has a very limited role in correcting the problem. This is due to the fact that the federal government contributes only about 6% to local school funding and does not have constitutional authority over education. Solutions lie mostly at the state level. It is my opinion that one of the states' biggest roles in school finance is not only to provide it, i.e., the money, but to close the gaps created at the local level because of inordinate reliance on property tax. I believe that states do not do enough to close those gaps.
States have a variety of options, including the ones you mentioned--eliminating property taxes, raising taxes, using state income taxes or some other devise. I am generally in favor of eliminating the property tax as the basis for funding local schools. But one should remember that eliminating it means replacing it with something else. Sales taxes are often recommended but just as often rejected because they are viewed as regressive--meaning their effects fall harder on low income people.
The problem in devising solutions is often less in how the state taxes but in the way it collects and distributes its revenues. Property taxes might be less troublesome if the state collected all of it and then distributed it from a single state pot rather than collecting and distributing it locally. The biggest argument against that approach is that some would feel that it violates local control of schools.
Finally, I am not convinced that spending the same amount on each child is the fairest approach to school funding. The truth is that parents spend considerably different amounts on their children's education-- whether in public or private schools--depending on income. Providing the same amount of state and local aid to the child of wealthy parents as to poor parents simply exacerbates the gaps and ignores the fact that one child is likely to have more unmet needs than the other. I am more in favor of providing whatever level of funding that is adequate for each child to meet his or her needs and to attain high standards than I am to providing the same amount to each child, rich or poor.
In large urban school districts and in poor rural ones, that approach often means more resources per child--not the same. That is one of the reasons that the Council of the Great City Schools recently advocated for a National Urban School Marshall Plan.