Over at his school finance blog, Rutgers prof Bruce Baker has penned an interesting and complex post about the need to keep local property taxes as part of the educational funding schemes used in most locales.
The post raises more questions for me than answers. Massachusetts, where I live, is one of those states that has tried to equalize educational funding through state aid, but has run into some complex problems in districts with lower or falling revenue.
I was all set to write something that argued that the local part of funding needed to be dropped. But after seeing the mess some states are in and reading Baker’s post, it seems logical that the local funding needs to continue. Baker makes a sound argument for the stability of this piece of the pie.
But the local control piece of local property tax funding raises some thorny issues around the stability and use of that funding. The New Orleans area is one where high percentages of private school enrollment have led to limited support for public schools. In New York, a contentious struggle has broken along racial and religious lines around the use of public education dollars. And in Massachusetts, the reliance on local taxes and a state law requiring votes for some increases has led to battles between those with students in private schools and retired folks on fixed income and “override moms” on the other. (See the Globe piece here).
So all of this is to use Baker’s piece as a jumping off point for the question: what is a state like Massachusetts to do? They have tried diligently to equalize funding, only to see this formula put more pressure on local districts than perhaps intended. I find the arguments for local control sound (keeping some skin the game, stability, local voice), but am also concerned about the tension between equity and moments where local control means cutting funding things like special education, which some imply are a “set aside” for a “special interest”.
I would enjoy further discussion with Baker and his readers on the policy implications of his posting and forthcoming paper. In the meantime, I went to a Canadian colleague to try and see how they work this north of the Border.
In Ontario, for years, local taxpayers registered as Catholic or not. This meant that a) your funds went to the school district you chose (imagine two, overlapping or co-locating districts in the same town, one secular public and the other Catholic), and b) it identified which board election you would vote in. The messiness of this has meant that (b) has been trained, but (a) has been equalized by the Province. All those local property and sales taxes move to the capitol where they are redistributed. Wealthier districts still have nicer buildings (they can supplement), and there is some local control of these funds (you can hire 5 assistant superintendents or more assistant principals if you want with your allocation), but there is a level of quality that all of these places meet. And while the role of the local board has been diminished, the folks who end up voting for a given board and engaging in a discussion around the direction of that board’s direction are those with skin in that game. And unlike Louisiana, there is some oversight in the for of test-taking.
While this may or may not be causal, all this happens in conjunction with Ontario being among the best in the world on PISA.
So this post is about more questions than answers. I assume that equity (or at least getting over some low bar) is a goal here, as is providing some balance between equity and local control. I also assume that funding, while not panacea, is a relevant part of the improvement discussion. I just wonder who has it right on the funding formula, with the right mix of democratic voice, equity, and stability.