PUBLIC SCHOOLS, TAXES - AND CLASS(ROOM) WAR?
Companion article to The Property Tax
The financial burden of NJ's residential property tax, an archaic and regressive tax, weighs disproportionately on "middle class" homeowners. So, therefore, weighs the local school budget - the one use of local property taxes that is always subject to voter approval.
But other public school funding concoctions have been simmering in NJ's political cauldrons for some time and, as the election campaign season draws near, Jersey residents will hear more about these funding brews.
The two recipes which bid fair to get taxpayer (e.g., voter) attention are a progressive statewide school tax and an income tax surcharge.
These tax formulas prove that politicians will never run out of ways to pit voters of different economic classes against one another.
Progressive Statewide School Tax (formula based on property value assessments)
If the use of local property taxes to fund the public schools were replaced by a progressive, statewide school tax, to be based on local property value assessments, proceeds to be equitably distributed by the state to each school district in inflation-adjusted block grants (using the statewide avg. per-pupil cost K-12), what would happen?
Well, every property owner would pay - but this progressive tax formula would mean that owners whose properties had higher-assessed values would pay more than they ever did before, while homeowners in poorer school districts across the state would eventually see their property taxes drop.
As a result, poorer school districts would actually get more per-pupil dollars than the total dollars all the local townsfolk collectively paid into the statewide schooltax pool.
However, "gold town " school districts accustomed to much higher than average per-pupil costs would actually get back less in per-pupil dollars than the total dollars all the local townsfolk collectively paid into the statewide schooltax pool.
So the Have Nots will contribute less and get more than before - enabling their children's schools to improve - because the Haves will contribute more and get less than before.
A redistribution of wealth, you might say.
The Haves may not take kindly to a school tax formula whose aim is to eliminate the funding discrepancy between their school districts and the school districts of the Have Nots.
In fact, if such a school tax were ever to be legislated, the reaction might well be a hellbroth of "gold town" lawsuits against the state, brought by those who know all the best methods (and who have the money) to circumvent, undermine and ultimately defeat its equalizing purpose.
No doubt the "gold town" districts would set up private foundations to maintain their accustomed per-pupil $$ advantage, and would thus keep the discrepancy going while their lawyers were busy challenging the state.
To the well-propertied class, whose interests have never been served by redistributive politics, this progressive school tax formula means war.
Statewide Income Tax Surcharge
Now we come to a formula which is not based on assessed property values, but on a state income tax surcharge, all proceeds of which are to be pooled and equitably distributed to school districts statewide. The income tax is, of course, a progressive tax.
So let's say all school districts statewide were allotted the same per-pupil $$. What would happen?
Well, every income earner would pay into the statewide "school tax" surcharge pool, but taxpayers reporting higher incomes would pay more into the surcharge pool even though their school districts would not get any more per-pupil $$ than school districts populated by taxpayers reporting lower incomes .
To those whose earned incomes - to say nothing of mortgage payments - have at last reached (or almost reached) "gold town" levels, this recipe may have a bitter taste.
It is unlikely that Jersey politicians, despite the state's looming fiscal crisis, would propose this school tax surcharge.
Jersey politicians, conditioned to promise Tax Cuts in return for votes, would rather be hung on hooks than to suggest raising the state income tax by even one cent. Which brings us to a crowd-pleasing proposition: school tuition vouchers.
Vouchers - A Way To De-fund The Public Schools?
Put simply, the Haves would like to negate the school funding portion of their own annual property tax bill by getting it back in the form of money vouchers for tuition assistance, a.k.a. "school vouchers."
So much for the folks who are not homeowners and therefore pay no property taxes to begin with.
Meanwhile, whatever voucher assistance the middle class income bracket receives will be insufficient to meet the tuition of private schools, leaving them with a choice of declining public schools or deepening personal debt. Is there any doubt that, in a "free market" economy, private school tuition will go up when vouchers are in prospect?
Pro-voucher politicians hope the public will be credulous enough to believe them when they say that private school vouchers will equally benefit all schoolchildren across the board, including children from low-and-middle income families.
This may explain why so many "compassionate conservatives" have been convinced that vouchers (a la Milwaukee's school voucher system) are the way to increase achievement for "low-income minorities" - but the academic case for vouchers is based on political rhetoric, not reality.
The only official data concerning the fabled 10-year-old Milwaukee school voucher program is a report by Wisconsin's non-partisan Legislative Audit Bureau in February 2000, which notes that "some hopes for the [voucher] program - most notably, that it would increase participating pupils' academic achievement - cannot be documented."
[BTW, almost a third of Milwaukee's private "voucher schools" were either not accredited, not seeking accreditation, or not subject to any independent review of educational quality.]
Nevertheless, and all legal arguments notwithstanding, the U.S. Supreme Court has now declared school vouchering plans constitutional.
Colorado will soon begin a statewide school voucher program using public funds to pay private and religious school tuition. Under this program, a Colorado child will qualify for a private or religious school voucher if public schools in his or her district receive a low or unsatisfactory academic performance rating.
Based on the number of students in Colorado, the private voucher program is expected to take appx. $200 million in state aid from Colorado's public schools in its first year.
Colorado's Republican Governor Bill Owens said the message of the voucher plan is that "our education system exists for one simple reason, to provide access to a quality education for every child."
Every child? Only the public schools stand ready to accept, and to try to educate, every child in our society. Private and religious schools are not beholden to society at large.
Taking public funds to pay for private schools will, of course, make it all the more difficult for consequently underfunded public schools to provide "a quality education for every child."
The private school voucher system greatly appeals to the upper-middle, professional, and wealthy classes, but opponents of the voucher system argue that it is a way to suck money out of the public sector, a way for the privileged classes to reclaim their tax money; tuition assistance they don't need will take from available public school funding for those who really need it.
It seems clear that such vouchers have nothing to do with improving the standards of public school education, a stubborn American idea which apparently conflicts with the ideas of today's "compassionate conservatives."
On the contrary, it would appear that the conservative politician's great purpose of life is to do away with the institutions of the public sector - the civic sector - so that only the private sector remains, leaving no check on the power and authority of private wealth.
Private school vouchers (and the wealth-worshipping values reinforced by private school elites, for that matter) are well suited to this purpose.
Its polar opposite is social and economic democracy, another stubborn American idea which had much to do with the establishment of this country's public schools.
Do NJ's Pols Want Equitable Financing Of Public Schools?
NJ politicians constantly portray themselves as visionary crusaders who want to "ease the property tax burden." An odd crusade, since they are also the ones who inflict the property tax burden, heaping it on their constituents with impunity.
How about winning the crusade by means of one single burden-easing act: abolishing the property tax itself.
Then NJ's public schools could be equitably financed statewide, because the entire funding of all school district budgets would properly come directly from the state treasury.
No, not from an added "school funding" income tax surcharge, nor from any "school tax "formula based on assessed property values.
Money for NJ's public schools should come from the state treasury - much of it already does anyway, in the form of state "aid."
Meanwhile, the waste of millions of NJ dollars poured down the rat-hole of political payoffs and squeaky-wheel projects is astounding in NJ, perhaps to the extent that ordinary taxpayers have given up questioning where all their hard-earned money goes. They need look no further than the clubhouses of their state legislators, who selectively control the payouts from the state treasury.
No doubt the greatest objection to equitable statewide school funding (were it to be paid directly from the state treasury) would come from state legislators themselves, who prefer to personally distribute the public's money in much the same way that third-world pols distribute the public's money to business associates and loyal partisans.
Millions of dollars, collected from taxpayers all over NJ, are siphoned off by state pols each year in an increasingly shameless appropriations frenzy and handed out -"granted" - to favored towns in legislators' home districts (where favored real estate developers, speculators and contractors are writing the script) for hundreds of local porkbarrel projects.
The state budget process is infinitely complicated by these money-sucking scripts, which include - but are not limited to - assorted matching-fund formulas, bond issues and other financial schemes which leave no campaign donor behind and none of a taxpayer's pockets unpicked.
Okay, that's the name of the game, that's politics, 'twas ever thus, to the victor belong the spoils, etc., etc. - but how about this: use state money to pay for the public schools first, before appropriating many millions of public dollars to finance political porkbarrels, patronage greedfests, and favors to political campaign contributors.
Public schools are mandated by state law. Funding them is a responsive use of the public's money. Multimillion dollar funding of legislators' local political contracts and porkbarrel "grants" is not.
Meanwhile, if rejection of local school budgets in NJ finally reaches critical mass, NJ politicians will no doubt propose school tuition vouchers as the only way to "insure quality education" and to, of course, "ease the local property tax burden."
They will argue that converting public money into private school vouchers is responsive to "the will of the majority."
Vouchers, as state legislators and their campaign fundraisers well know, are responsive to the will of the privileged minority.
The will of the majority is to preserve their local public schools, not to engineer their slow but sure final destruction by starving them out.
A responsive NJ state legislature would make the public schools Funding Job One.
As for local public school standards and school boards, local taxpayers would have the same power they always had: it's called "elections." Voters could continue to elect local district school boards and to hold them accountable for providing universally accessible, quality instruction within their budgets for all children in their districts.
Voters could elect state legislators who would be accountable for carrying out the obligation they always had, namely the prudent and equitable use of state funds for the public schools and all other institutions established in the common interest of, and in response to the will of, the general taxpaying public.
NJ - (Home)Ruled By Tax Warlords
The Balkanization of New Jersey, a pandemonium of 22 county governments and 500+ town governments all jostling one another at the public trough, must end. Merely saying that it leads to "wasteful duplication of services " is a polite understatement.
NJ's "home rule" turns out to be a pig's breakfast of financial waste, scandal, greed, arrogance and corruption.
It is a system in which NJ politicians continuously and arbitrarily wield the local property tax like a sword over their constituents.
To have confidence in such a travesty of government - or to think that it could produce a civilized, equitable formula for funding the public schools - would require the deliberate suspension of normal adult mental activity.
Do local politicians and state legislators really want to "ease the property tax burden?"
Then they should demand the abolition of the residential property tax itself, the punitive, regressive, archaic tax from which they derive their political power, a tax which enables them to reward their partisans, discredit their opponents, and frustrate the will of the public, all the while pauperizing the middle class residents of New Jersey.
A tax which will also enable NJ politicians to make a shambles of NJ's public schools.
It is high time for a State Constitutional Convention in NJ, where delegates can take up
- the long overdue abolition (not reform, abolition) of the residential property tax, and
- a streamlined, regional model of government to replace the antiquated colonial system of 22 county boards, 500+ municipal boards, and the duplicative bureaucracies throughout that system.
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