Sunday, May 20, 2007

An inconvenient truth

The Trib addresses what Ross Perot might call Pennsylvania's crazy aunt in the basement: an inequitable system for funding public schools. This is the reason why cutting property taxes is so difficult. Without reforming the school funding system--which puts the onus for funding schools on local districts, and thus local property owners--not only will you be unable to offer significant local property tax cuts, but you will continue to have vast inequalities among school districts.

Some other states have reformed their school funding systems after state courts have ruled that they were so inequitable as to violate state consitutions. But a similar lawsuit in Pennsylvania failed a few years ago. (Though the Trib article hints that the current lawsuit over Allegheny County's base-year system could have a similar effect. If the system is declared unconstitutional, and properties statewide must be re-assessed, taxpayers may demand state-wide reform.)

The other hurdle to reform in Pennsylvania is the state's strong tradition of local control--and many of the communities that value local control the most are the most affluent and thus have the greatest political influence. Districts like Mt. Lebanon, Upper St. Clair and Quaker Valley can raise taxes as much as they want, because many--though not all--residents can afford to pay them, and they moved to those places in the first place because they were willing to pay a premium for public education. Taxpayers in those places will not be happy to pay taxes to support school districts in places like Wilkinsburg, Clairton and Duquesne.

But until and unless the state tackles school funding reform, we will never have property tax reform. Because unless you change the way schools are funded, any property tax cuts would have to be matched by an increase in some other tax. (And it may have to happen any way.) As any politician will tell you, there's no percentage in that.

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Blogger EdHeath said...

Apparently the carrot being offered to the Upper Saint Clair's is reduced property taxes. Would they still retain the ability to put more in their own school district. I don't know, all I can see is that income and sales taxes, which are regressive, might go up while property taxes go down. Yes, some poor people own homes, but they are usually *small* homes. Seems like the rich are going to keep more of their money, maybe at the expense of their kids' education.

Yes, I know Pennsylvania doesn't tax food or clothing, making the sales tax a little less regressive.

12:34 PM

Blogger Jonathan Potts said...

Well, it all depends on what system you adopt. I believe--and I'm not certain--that some states allow school districts to keep a certain amount of property taxes for use locally, but require that all revenues beyond that go to the state. Among the questions that have to be answered is what exactly is an acceptable level of school funding.

Sales and wage taxes are indeed regressive, and I think most people recognize that, which was part of the reason why Act 1 went down in flames. But that doesn't mean people in wealthy communities are going to welcome inreases in those levies.

Imagine you live in Mt. Lebanon, which has relatively high property and wage taxes. For the sake of argument, let's say you pay $10,000 every year in sales, wage and property taxes. (Purely hypothetical.) Now, you tolerate paying those taxes because a big chuck goes to pay for local public schools, and one of the reason you moved to Mt. Lebanon was for the good schools. But now your tax bill is going up, not to pay for your own schools but for schools in Wilkinsburg. How are you going to feel?

1:08 PM

Blogger Mark Rauterkus said...

This is a quagmire. One thing for sure, Gov. Rendell and the existing suite of politicians just don't get it.

I want local control.

But, the state mandates are not in sync with the funding from the state.

One of the first breakdowns happens with special needs children in schools. When that problem becomes solved -- then the regular stucents can be put on a similar platform with each other.

There are viable solutions out there from some of the experts. I sat in on a full day seminar by an educational consultant and it is going to take a lifetime of work by a crew of interested advocates to iron out the troubles.

We don't need a band-aid. And, we don't need the wrong fixes. But, this can be fixed if we elect people who care to tackle the big range of problems.

5:29 PM


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