Paying for Schools With Property Taxes Doesn't Work
Several years ago my wife was working at a rural school district in Georgia located between Athens and Atlanta along Highway 316. The district was enduring another round in a perpetual funding crisis. Barrow County, where she worked, was rapidly becoming what you might call "sub-rural": not quite a suburb, but not entirely rural anymore either. While the county retained many of its rural features (when we lived there, early in our marriage, we could sit on our back deck and listen to the roar of the cars on the county race track every Saturday night), it was also rapidly becoming more suburban, with houses being built at breakneck pace. That's how we ended up there. On two teachers' salaries, cheap new houses built on formerly open fields within close proximity to pretty big population centers looked pretty good.
It was a place in transition—that's the point. And you should know by now that when communities are in economic and demographic transition there is usually a healthy amount of tension involved. Tension between more established residents and newcomers, to be sure, tension between developers and conservationists, and definitely tension between people who liked things the way they were and, well, people who had become accustomed to expecting a little bit more. Caught in the middle were the public schools, as is often the case. With general population growth comes growth in student population, and with growth in student population comes hard economic choices.
This is an enduring problem in American education. As we all well know, schools are primarily funded through local taxes, chiefly property taxes, and that creates a bit of quandary for policymakers and parents and other citizens who believe a high quality education should be available to every child. For one thing, property values are not consistent across the country. But we already knew that, right? Unfortunately this means that some schools have access to better resources than others, and the presence of those resources can confer huge advantages on the kids who receive them. This is not an ironclad rule, needless to say—there are plenty of bad schools in wealthy districts, and plenty of great schools serving impoverished neighborhoods too, and there are certainly plenty of places where wealthy property owners will do anything to avoid paying taxes to support things like schools—but those are the exceptions that prove the rule.
Where the ability to fund schools is consistent, school performance is better. Note that I didn't say extravagant—I said consistent. Just read the right side of the first chart here about the achievement gap: factors in the local community that impact student achievement—economic opportunity, access to health and social services, community safety, access to libraries and museums, access to child care—these not only are resources, but they require resources as well, and the ability to provide a stable and consistent source of funding for public works is often what brings them into existence. Those communities with the ability to generate funding for things like health and social services, museums, community safety, and child care are going to give their children a powerful advantage over children growing up in other communities.
There has to be a better way. Our economic system is designed, supposedly, to reward innovation and encourage "creative destruction," as the economists like to say, but educational systems work best when they are stable and when commitments are made to nurturing the development of programs and the students they serve, not destroying them—creatively or otherwise. The current age of education reform is built on a foundation of economic thinking that's just simply poorly suited to educational problems. The idea, for example, that testing and accountability and expansion of choice—hallmarks of this era of reform—will give us the schools we want is reminiscent of the comment once allegedly made by a U.S. officer in Vietnam to reporter Peter Arnett. That officer famously said, describing a delicate military operation, that it had become necessary to destroy a village in order to save it. Accountability and choice might make sense when you're shopping for a new car (especially if you have the money to afford one), but when you're trying to secure an education things are a little more complicated.
And that brings us back to the question of how to match our desire for good schools to an appropriate mechanism for funding them. What we have now is a reform movement built on contemporary economic thinking (which favors "market-based" solutions to social problems) foregrounded against a funding system that is deeply rooted in the economic thinking of a very different era. We have reformers pushing for an overhaul of the nation's education system even as the resources provided for that system slowly and inexorably dry up. Many reformers have tried to address reductions in public outlays by injecting private money into schools—opening the doors to for-profit charter chains and hedge fund philanthropy—but these sources of funding are bound to only move us further from the mission of public education, which is, and should be, to provide an education that is universaly available and free at the point of delivery for every single American.
In other words: the solution to our resource problem is not to eliminate the burden of paying for schools—as I have found a lot of my neighbors, weary of paying property taxes, would prefer—but to figure out new ways to ensure that the burden is borne by those of us who are most able to afford it. This means committing to the idea that we all benefit from public education. Educated kids are less likely to engage in criminal activity, if you want to start there. Educational attainment leads to higher wages, which, in turn, means people spend more—which helps the economy grow. Most important, educated kids make better citizens. If we do this right, our kids will grow up to be less impulsive, more committed to their communities, and more likely to understand the complexities of political life in the 21st century. If we do it right. I, for one, don't think we can begin to do it right on an inconsistent shoestring budget that is always dependent on which way the political wind blows.
We'll have to work on a solution, but should start here: providing inconsistent funding for schools, and tying it to the political process, as we do now, is a recipe for mediocrity. Our over-reliance on property taxes—a very nineteenth-century way of funding education—is, to my eyes, a major obstacle to overcome. Rooting schools in their communities in this way may have made sense then, but it doesn't now—not when people move from place to place so easily, not with the larger economy in an extended transition, not with, as many reformers like to point out, globalization knocking at our door. I've said before that I'm less concerned about my kids competing in the global economy than I am about them having long, happy, fruitful lives, but at some point we have to confront the fact that we do a lot of things here that would never be tolerated in the education systems in other developed countries. Providing vastly unequal resources to children based on the circumstances of their birth has to rank right up near the top.