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editorial

Restoring equity in education


April 19, 2012

Americans like to think of the United States as a land of opportunity. Everybody, regardless of birth or circumstance, ought to have an equal chance to make a good life for themselves. The record inequality of wealth and income that now exists in this country, however, suggests that this is not currently the case. And while a number of factors are responsible, our increasing failure to deliver equal access to a quality education is an important piece of the puzzle. One reason for that failure lies in the fact that we finance our public schools largely with property taxes. That needs to change.

If education relies on property taxes, then wealthy areas with valuable properties and residents who can afford tax increases without cutting into daily living expenses will be able to provide better educations than poor rural areas like ours. True, state aid helps offset the difference. But when states tighten their budget belts as is now the case, that offset tends to dwindle. And in New York State, the property tax cap that has just been imposed will make the difference between richer and poorer school districts progressively greater over the years.

Dr. Ken Hilton, superintendent of the Sullivan West School District, explained why that’s so in a presentation at the April 5 school board meeting. Here’s how the math works, using slightly different numbers than Hilton did for simplicity’s sake.

Though it’s generally referred to as a 2% tax levy, determining each district’s levy cap is far more complicated than that. But, for the example, let’s assume a tax levy of 2%. Now say there are two districts, a poor rural district and a rich one (we’ll borrow Hilton’s moniker, “Fancy Pants Central School District”), each starting with an annual budget of $20 million. The rural district gets 50% of its funding from state aid, so its tax levy is $10 million. In a single year, it can increase that $10 million by 2%, or $200,000. Meanwhile, Fancy Pants doesn’t need much state aid, and so finances 80%, or $16 million of its budget, with property taxes. When it increases its tax levy by 2%, that means a rise of $320,000, compared to the rural district’s $200,000. The new law says the cap can be exceeded with a 60% or higher “yes” budget vote—something you’re more likely to see in the affluent Fancy Pants district, making the gap even bigger.

Now imagine that effect compounded over a series of years. The difference between the funding—and the educational opportunities—is not only going to get wider and wider, but it will do so at an accelerating rate.