Tuesday, November 22, 2005

And A Child Shall Lead Them. . .

Evaluating Alternatives To Property Tax Based School Financing

We've all heard the Chinese proverb, as adopted by the Gordon's of Glouster Fisherman (or was it Mrs. Paul?) "Give a man a fish and you feed him for a day. Teach him how to fish and you feed him for a lifetime."

Of course, with all the mercury in the fresh fish and the PCBs in farmed fish, one has to ask, "Should we be eating fish at all?" Take those Omega-3 supplements, a couple of Lipitor, and bite into that 18-ounce prime rib, we say.

But we digress. We acknowledge that teaching the child has much more merit than spoon-feeding that child for the rest of his life -- fish or no fish. The real issue we must contend with is the price of the fish versus the cost of educating that child.

As any fish lover can appreciate, what was once less expensive than chicken is now among the most expensive eats. Why, you can't get a decent salmon steak for under $6.99 a pound, and those "exotics" are untouchable.

Okay, so buying the fish doesn't come cheap. What about teaching to fish? What is the price tag of our children's education?

Well, a recent review of this blogger's mortgage escrow reveals that the lender paid $3,572.00 to the Town of Hempstead Receiver of Taxes last month for School Property Taxes. [Cash that check quickly, Don, before it bounces!] Now, that's $3,572.00 for half a year -- or 6 months, for those who count using both hands. Folks, that's $7,144.00 per year for School Taxes alone. How much was that fish again?

Assuming that the $7,144.oo is in the neighborhood of 60% of our total Property Tax bill, adding in 20% for County Property Taxes and another 20% for Town and Special District Taxes, would bring this blogger's total Property Tax bill for 2005-06 to a whopping $11,906.66. That's nearly $12,000 in Property Taxes for a single year on a postage-stamp sized lot improved by a single family home (sans illegal tenants to help defray the costs).

Assume, as well, that the school portion of the property tax will double by decade's end -- not a stretch, by any means, as even contingency budgets up the ante 6-8% each year. That's roughly $14,000 in School Taxes alone. If County, Town and Special District taxes remain constant (even Kate Murray couldn't guarantee that freeze), this blogger's Property Tax bill for 2009-10 would be in excess of $19,000 for a single tax year. What's in your wallet?

Forget unacceptable or even unconscionable. The School Property Tax, based solely on the market value of real property, has become, simply put, unaffordable. Unless your income will double by 2009, you are not even keeping up. [And heaven help us should the local property tax no longer be deductible!]

The problem is abundantly clear. Rising costs, escalating budgets, inadequate State Aid, and a cadre of overburdened property owners who, if they are asked to continue to pay for fishing lessons, will soon find themselves starving to death.

The solutions? Why ask us? Heck, we're no experts. What do we know? Well, for one thing, it doesn't take an Alan Greenspan - or even an Ewald B. Nyquist (always loved that name) -- to figure out that in New York, the State Aid formula (where some districts get nearly full funding while others hover near the 12% mark) must have been concocted not by Einstein, but by Professor Irwin Corey.

There needs to be a "fix" geared toward what we'll call an equitable distribution of State Aid to all school districts. After all, teaching a child to fish shouldn't cost that much more in Coxsackie than it does in Coram, and children in both districts deserve -- and under the State Constitution, should be deemed equally entitled to -- an equivalent share of State funding. [We're still having a bit of trouble coming to terms with the State Constitution, Article XI, Section 1 of which mandates that "The Legislature shall provide for the maintenance of a system of free common schools, wherein all children of this state may be educated." (Emphasis added.)]

Okay, so free education is never free, but come on Mr. and Mrs. State Legislator, you're not living up to your obligation under our State Constitution! Where are the jurists who strictly interpret these things when we need them? Find us one Judge on the Court of Appeals who will say that inequitable funding of public schools by the State is inherently unequal under New York's Constitution, or that where School Districts are mandated to play, then the State is required to pay.

Anyway, if we are to be left to fend for ourselves -- and it appears we are, for even the fishing nets provided by the State have gaping holes in them -- then we'd better start swimming or, to paraphrase Robert Zimmerman (a/k/a Bob Dylan), we'll sink like that proverbial stone.

Of course, there is no paucity of ideas being advanced -- just an apparent lack of initiative on the part of our elected officials to grab the bull by the horns. Oh, plenty of bull, all right, but few if any willing to take them by the horns.

The Campaign for Fiscal Equity, well known for their successful court challenge of the State Aid formula as applied to New York City, has advanced a Schools For New York's Future Act. The proposal, reviewed, considered, and, in many respects, adopted by the education community, calls for the following:

AN ADDITIONAL $8.6 BILLION FOR OPERATING EXPENSES to be provided to districts across the state. The bill takes the same funding reforms that the court ordered for New York City and applies them to every district in New York State. This means that hundreds of districts throughout the state will receive substantial increases-a total of almost $3 billion-in addition to the $5.6 billion that the court ordered for New York City. No district's current state aid allocation would be reduced. The bill calls for a four-year phase-in of these new funds, with appropriate adjustments for inflation and student enrollment.

AN ADDITIONAL $10 BILLION FOR IMPROVING CAPITAL FACILITIES to relieve overcrowding, reduce class sizes, and other maintenance and facilities projects. Of this amount, $9.2 billion would be used for projects in New York City.

A TRANSPARENT, SIMPLIFIED FOUNDATION FORMULA that consolidates over 30 existing state aid categories into a single funding stream, providing districts with predictability and transparency in the way their schools are funded. The foundation formula starts with a base level of funding-about $8,000 per pupil-which is then multiplied by the number of enrolled pupils in the district. This figure is then adjusted to make sure that schools with high rates of poverty, children with disabilities, and English language learners receive substantial extra resources. Finally, the amount is adjusted by a cost of education index and a sparsity factor.

A CLEAR, FAIR FORMULA FOR DETERMINING EACH DISTRICT'S STATE/LOCAL SHARE that is based on the local district's ability to pay and its relative enrollment of students with high rates of poverty. The formula substantially increases the state's overall share of education funding. For many districts, this means that the proposed formula will result in lowering the proportion of total expenditures paid by local taxpayers. For New York City, and certain other districts that have not been successful in providing their students a sound basic education, this fair share local contribution would be mandatory.

AN ENHANCED ACCOUNTABILITY SYSTEM that will guarantee that the influx of funds is used in ways that actually provide all students a genuine opportunity for a sound basic education. New York City and other districts whose students are currently not meeting state standards would be required to develop a four-year comprehensive sound basic education plan that will replace most of the current planning requirements. The commissioner will issue regulations that will ensure that districts' comprehensive SBE plans set forth annual and long-term benchmarks for measuring outcomes, and that there is extensive public engagement of parents, teachers, administrators, and school-based planning and shared decision-making teams throughout the process.

The CFE's proposal is not without its detractors, and, at the very least, one has to question the "equity" in giving New York City's school children $9.2 billion of the facilities improvement funds while the rest of New York's kids have to share the remaining $0.8 billion. The Bill has its shortcomings, but nevertheless, its a start. As they say, that journey of a thousand miles begins with a single step.

Glaringly absent from CFE's proposal is how in the dickens we're going to pay for all this equity. Unless we are willing to shoulder $100,000 in School Property Tax per household (as if we're not already headed in that direction), we've got to think outside of the box -- or, at least, outside the house, where the funding of our schools is dependent upon a regressive property-based system of revenue raising.

Liz Krolik, a coordinator for the Alliance for Quality Education, a statewide coalition of more than 230 organizations, and an organizer for the Long Island Progressive Coalition, posited a few palatable suggestions, as were published in Newsday this past September. [SEE A Crazy Way To Fund Schools.] In the height of the campaign season, Newsday's timely Long Island Topic seemingly flew under the radar. Perhaps we can put it back up on the screen.

Advancing possible reforms, Ms. Krolik opined:

The state income tax, for instance, is a progressive tax based on ability to pay. Over the past 25 years the top state income tax rates have dramatically dropped. Simply by restoring these rates, the state would draw in the needed revenues to fund education. Calling on wealthier residents to pay their share would help close the gap and guarantee access to extracurricular activities for all kids.

Another option is to eliminate corporate income tax loopholes. It's time that the state reinstated these levies that would broaden the tax base, shift the regressive system from individual taxpayer to a more progressive corporate taxpayer system and raise needed revenues.

The Assembly has introduced the Schools for New York's Future Act, legislation designed to fix the school funding formula, increase public accountability and increase state school aid. The legislation uses a formula that determines state funding based on the needs of the students.

With this kind of tax reform, or some mix of all three ideas, parents won't have to be overburdened by raising private funds for sports and extracurricular activities, and no children will be denied their constitutional right to an education.

Surely, there are pros and cons, costs and benefits, of every suggested reform. Still, one thing is abundantly clear -- reform is imperative if we are to survive financially while striving to provide our children with a workable system of public education where No Child Left Behind is no longer an unfunded mythical beast devouring local resources, but rather, a fully implemented reality, backed by funds from both Washington and Albany.

Teach a child to fish. By all means. Let's find a way to pay for those lessons that won't leave us -- and our children -- fishing with a baitless line in an empty pond!
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What's your opinion? Thoughts, suggestions, rants? The Community Alliance would like to know. E-mail us at info@thecommunityalliance.org.

The Community Alliance takes a Thanksgiving holiday hiatus, thankful for the legion of volunteers who understand that the causes of community, great and small, never take a holiday, and mindful of the fact that while we may enjoy the bounty bestowed upon us, many -- on Thanksgiving Day and every day -- go without. Click on TheHungerSite.com to feed the hungry. "Whoever Saves One Life Saves a World Entire."

From all of us at The Community Alliance, a happy, thankful and thought-filled Thanksgiving!

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