Home > Uncategorized > Reliance on Property Taxes Exacerbates Economic Divide, Opens the Door to Vouchers

Reliance on Property Taxes Exacerbates Economic Divide, Opens the Door to Vouchers

April 3, 2018

An extract from a post by Peter Greene included in Diane Ravitch’s blog post yesterday prompted me to realize that the ultimate driving force for privatization of public education is the revenue source. Mr. Greene’s blog post took aim at an op ed piece Arne Duncan wrote suggesting that test-based reform is succeeding. The one paragraph that summarized Mr. Greene’s point is this:

[His] notion that test-based accountability “revealed” achievement gaps is baloney. Educators knew where the gaps were. We’ve always known where the gaps were. We’ve screamed about the gaps. I don’t believe any teacher in this country picked up test results and said, “I’ll be damned! I had no idea these non-white, non-wealthy students were having trouble keeping up!” At best, test-based accountability was a tool to convince policy makers who would listen to data spreadsheets before they would listen to teachers. And even then, policy makers didn’t look at the data and say, “Well, we’d better help these schools out.” Instead, all the way up to Duncan’s office, they responded with, “Well, let’s target this school for closure or conversion or a growth opportunity for some charter operators.”

After quoting at length from Mr. Greene’s post, Ms. Ravitch writes (with my emphasis in bold red italics):

Charter schools are the gateway to vouchers. It is now widely understood that Arne Duncan and his friends paved the way for Betsy DeVos and her all-out war on  public schools. That is now widely recognized, even if Duncan doesn’t admit it.

Reform is failing, failing, failing. The public is wise to the reformers’ real goal, which is to privatize public schools and disparage teachers instead of confronting the real issues of poverty and segregation.

And nothing that Arne writes here changes that fact.

As I reflected on Ms. Ravitch’s conclusion, it struck me that the real gateway to vouchers is public education’s over-reliance on property taxes which has the effect of insulating thousands of students from the ravages of tax cuts or tax caps at the state and/or federal level.

When state legislatures impose deep cuts to public education or the federal government reduces funding, the school boards in affluent communities can increase their property taxes to ensure that the children in their community are insulated from the impact of cuts. Boards in less affluent communities do not have this option, and so their schools suffer. The result: the divide between rich and poor widens but the property tax burden increases in affluent towns as the funding is shifted downward.

In states where state legislatures impose property tax limitations WITH the possibility of local voter overrides— the voters in affluent districts consistently pass supplemental budgets. Thus, they protect their students and communities from the impact of budget cuts experienced in less affluent communities who do not have the tax base necessary to match the funding possible in wealthier districts. And in states where state legislatures impose property tax limitations WITHOUT the possibility of local voter overrides, school boards came up with fee-for-service models that replaced tax revenues with de facto “user fees”: children are assessed for busing, extra-curricular, and, in some cases, text books. In either case where tax caps were imposed, the schools in affluent districts did not experience the impact of limitations while the schools in less affluent districts suffered.

This ability of relatively affluent districts to raise funds to offset lost revenues through increases to property taxes or the institution of fees creates a situation where the parents and children in those districts never felt the impact of STATE tax cuts OR property tax caps. As a result, voters in those districts were indifferent to or, in some cases, fully supportive of test-driven reform because— to paraphrase Mr. Greene— their “white, relatively wealthy students WERE keeping up”. And since they were keeping up they never had to worry about doing poorly on state tests, they never had to worry about their schools being identified as “failing” and closing, and never had to replace their broad curricula with “focused” test preparation classwork.

This system of taxation is the gateway to vouchers because as long as property taxes and “user fees” are the primary source of funding, the voters in affluent districts will remain immune to the impact of STATE tax cuts and may even support them because they are already paying high local property taxes to keep their schools afloat. So when these state-tax-resistant voters in affluent districts hear that the State legislators have a means of helping “other children” in “failing schools” by giving their parents “choices”, a “solution” that requires NO increase in State taxes, they are open to supporting the idea…. And as readers of this blog realize, the privatizers are only too happy to feed them data to support the fantasy that “choice” is the silver bullet that can solve the problems of inequitable funding.

W. Edward Deming said “A bad system will beat a good person every time”… we have a bad system for school funding in place and it is, alas, beating many good people.

  1. April 3, 2018 at 11:44 am

    Wayne – great article – thank you!

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