School Funding: Do We Have to be as Poor as Our Neighbor?

In a provocative new school funding case, a federal court judge in Kansas City ruled against parents from the suburban Shawnee Mission school district who had wanted to increase property taxes above the state mandated limit. This is a local control debate that is sure to heat up as we stumble through the current financial crisis, with more and more proposals to increase the centralization of school governance and financing.  (See Lou Gerstner’s 70 super districts proposal.)

According to an Associated Press report on the Kansas decision,  allowing individual jurisdictions to set their own tax “could bring down the state’s entire school financing system.” The parents in Shawnee Mission wanted just the right to ask local voters if they wanted to pay more. The court said No. (Read the 21-page order here.)

As the pressure to hold down school costs mounts, property tax caps have become a favored option because they remain a favorite form of funding local government agencies, including school districts.  But the objections from wealthier communities, which can afford to pay more, are also mounting.  Twelve towns in New Jersey have announced plans to have votes on exceeding the Garden State’s new property tax cap, a local opt-out option that the new cap law allows.

Though there is more to learn about this case and its legal implications,  if the press reports are accurate, the Kansas ruling appears to mean that there can be no opting out of the cap, even if local voters wanted to.  This hits hard at some core American principles. “The local option tax is capped so wealthy districts do not have an unfair advantage over poorer ones,” reports the A.P.  In the battle to get poor school districts adequate or equitable funding, at least there seemed a moral purpose to the argument.  But the Kansas case seems to issue a different kind of challenge,  especially as more states opt for centralized funding mechanisms.  Will we allow the kind of inequity which allows for excellence?  I predict a new Lake Wobegon, where  all the children and their teachers are average.

–Peter Meyer

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