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Editorial Archives — The Altamont Enterprise, December 1, 2011

We need a new tax system to ease rough ride for poor schools

The Occupy Wall Street movement has made us all painfully aware of the ever-widening chasm between the rich and the poor in this country. Education was traditionally the road out of poverty for Americans. A sound public education is a cornerstone of our democracy.

This past year, the Board of Regents, which governs education in New York, pointed to data that showed income levels increased with degrees of education and accordingly upped its standards, raising the cut-offs for test scores, with the goal of making high school graduates better prepared for college.

The sad truth is that, at the same time, the state is undermining education in its poorest public schools. The Alliance for Quality Education released a report last week, “Back to Inequality: How Students in Poor School Districts Are Paying the Price for the State Budget,” that shows the recent cuts in state aid have fallen hardest on the districts that can least afford them.

The three districts covered by The Enterprise illustrate this disparity. At rural Berne-Knox-Westerlo, where 30 percent of the students get free or reduced-price lunches, the per-pupil cut in state aid this year was $1,157. The wealthier, suburban districts fared much better. In Voorheesville, where 5 percent of the students are eligible for free and reduced price lunches, the per-pupil aid cut was $386. In Guilderland, where 6 percent of the students qualify for the free lunches, the per-pupil cut in aid was $359. The same pattern held true for state-aid cuts the year before.

The problem is compounded because the poorer districts rely on state aid for a greater share of their revenues; at Guilderland, for example, about a quarter comes from state aid, while at BKW, nearly half comes from state aid.

Pushed by Governor Andrew Cuomo, the state legislature has adopted a tax cap. This means school boards must adopt budgets that won’t raise the tax levy by more than 2 percent or the cost-of-living increase, whichever is less, or budgets that exceed that limit must garner at least 60 percent of the public vote. The districts that are least likely to win those extra votes are the poor districts. Berne-Knox-Westerlo has suffered several budget defeats in recent years just trying to get 50 percent of the vote.

So poor districts are now facing a double whammy: Their state aid is being cut disproportionately, and they are the least likely to be able to remedy that cut by raising more through local property taxes.

Cuomo has said, “There are two education systems in this state — not public and private. One for the rich and one for the poor and they are both public systems.”

Nearly a decade ago, a group from New York City that saw the inherent unfairness of this, the Campaign for Fiscal Equity, sued the state and won. The state’s highest court determined that, according to New York’s constitution, students were entitled to a “sound basic education.” Accordingly, a plan was drafted that would have increased aid across the state while adding aid for the poor districts. As New York found itself in a mounting economic crisis, those plans were redrafted, stretching over more years, and then, finally, scrapped.

The “Back to Inequality” report states of 2009, “The education tsunami began resulting in a $2.7 billion cut over the course of the past two years.” A graph in the report shows how the state reversed its commitment to the Campaign for Fiscal Equity with the Foundation Aid, New York’s equitable operating aid that prioritizes high-needs districts, falling off sharply.

This problem of inequity is not a new one. Twenty years ago, the Board of Regents proposed a major reform of the system for distributing state aid. The Regents found that per-pupil spending in districts around the state in 1990-91 ranged from $5,200 to $30,000. The disparity is even greater now.

School districts in poor communities, the Regents found, spend far less per pupil than those in more affluent communities — classes tend to be larger, teachers less experienced, and educational technology less available.

That’s not fair. Every child is entitled to an equal chance at a good education. We are all part of the same society.

For over a quarter of a century, we have on this page urged implementing a statewide income tax to fund education. Our system of property-based school taxes is archaic and should be replaced with a progressive statewide income tax divided among districts on a per-pupil basis.

Currently, state aid to local school districts is determined by a complex system of formulas arrived at piecemeal in a political arena. And, despite its broad use, the school property tax is widely seen as imposing unfair burdens on those who can least afford them.

Local property taxes take up a larger percentage of income for poor people than for wealthy people. And, for those with lower incomes, real property is likely to be the only source of wealth.

Aside from helping the elderly and others on low or fixed incomes continue to live in their homes, an income tax would allow small-scale farmers in our rural areas to continue their operations, maintaining open space for all.

Funding formulas should be decided not on the basis of political realities, but rather on the basis of educational needs.

A statewide income tax should be levied to pay for all state-required educational needs at the elementary and secondary levels. It should be distributed on a per-student basis, evenly, across the state, with adjustments made regionally for varying costs of living. In areas where there are high concentrations of poverty, additional state funds should be shifted to those districts since there are increased educational costs there.

Of course, taxpayers in wealthy districts that wanted to offer their students more could always vote to levy increased local taxes upon themselves to provide the extras their students now receive.

Statewide requirements should be paid for by taxes levied statewide. As it is now, locally elected school boards in districts that aren’t wealthy have very little say on how locally raised taxes are spent. Within the framework of already existing guidelines, school districts could still decide how monies will be spent.

Only when each child is given the same financial backing, backing that will adequately meet all of his or her educational needs, will each student have the same chance to succeed.

Our democracy depends on a well-educated constituency. Before the chasm between the rich and the poor grows too wide to bridge, we need to see that funding for our public schools is fair. We’ll all pay for the consequences.

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