The Property Tax: The Road to Unequal Schools
Excerpt from: Teachers, Schools, and Society: A Brief Introduction to Education p. 230-231
The method of financing public schools . . . can be fairly described as chaotic and unjust.
(Supreme Court Justice Potter Stewart)
To someone from another country, the way the United States funds its schools must seem bizarre, and certainly unfair. Unlike many other nations, which use a centralized funding system, we have a very decentralized system. In fact, we have three levels of government—local, state, and federal—all raising and distributing funds. Currently, the local and state governments share the biggest burden of funding schools, with the federal government responsible for just 6 to 8 percent of the total. What a tangled web we weave when fifty states, fifteen thousand local governments, and one enormous federal government become involved in funding and managing 90,000 schools.
How did this financial hodgepodge begin? In colonial America. schools were the concern of local communities. Then, at the birth of our nation, the Constitution did not designate a federal role in education, effectively leaving it the responsibility of the states. "Local control" of schools became a well-established tradition, one that still holds sway today.
In the agrarian society of colonial times, wealth was measured by the size of people's farms. So to raise money for schools, colonial towns and districts assessed a property tax. Although today only 2 percent of Americans still work the land, the property tax continues to be the major source of school revenue. Today's property taxes are levied on real estate (homes and businesses) and sometimes personal property (cars and boats). Whether a school district will find itself rich in resources, or scrambling to make ends meet, depends largely on the wealth of the community being taxed. Not surprisingly, a tax on a Beverly Hills mansion raises many more thousands of dollars than a tax on a house in South Central Los Angeles. Communities blessed with valuable real estate can easily raise funds for their schools. Impoverished communities are not so fortunate. Urban areas struggle the most, suffering not only from lower property values, but also the need to use those limited resources to fund more police officers, hospitals, subways, and other services than their suburban counterparts, a phenomenon known as municipal overburden.
Reprinted with the permission of McGraw-Hill Companies.
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