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We moved last year—from Florida, a state with relatively poor public schools, to a strong school district in Michigan. Our property taxes are higher than the national and even county average, but like many families with school-age children, we are willing (and able) to pay them. We support our local public school district.Or do we? Are we supporting our school district, or supporting its students—our kids? For generations, with the rise of universal public K-12 education, this was a distinction without a difference. Not anymore. In many states, the distinction makes all the difference.
First, some background: Property taxes aren’t the only source of support for the common good of public education. Property taxes vary widely and school districts with low tax bases—often home to low-income, minority families—would have far fewer resources without states’ hefty contributions.
States allocate funding to make sure that per-pupil-spending across school districts is somewhat equalized, though some states are more equal than others. Some, like New Jersey, shift so much money to some high poverty districts they are some of the best funded within the state. But balancing school spending often isn’t enough to level educational outcomes. Student performance still varies widely, leaving students in poor districts at a profound disadvantage.
Enter school vouchers: In theory, they make it possible for parents, rather than school districts, to control a share of tax dollars. Vouchers in hand, their kids can leave a poor-performing school or district and attend schools of their choice. Voucher programs have been around a while, and are now in 13 states and the District of Columbia. Last month, two states unveiled plans to expand their programs, just in time for the start of the next budget cycle on July 1.
Consider Wisconsin. The GOP legislature has a likely-to-pass plan that would allocate a fixed amount of dollars-per-student to low-income children. They could use the vouchers to enroll in any school—public or private—that can accommodate them. They’d have lots of choice, but in just one budget cycle would walk away with up to $48 million that would have otherwise gone to public schools.
Nevada, where public schools perform poorly relative to other states, may take an even bigger step. It’s about to enact its largest one-time tax increase in history for public education. The state senate also just passed a bill that would give parents the option of using 90 percent of the state’s dollars-per-student for private education, including religiously oriented schools and home schooling. Students living in poverty or with special needs would get 100 percent. In exchange for the money, parents would agree to create an education savings account that would pay tuition to a “participating entity” other than a public school.
Imagine that: A state full of students able to take the tax money and run. If parents, not school districts, control where tax dollars go, will students’ educational outcomes improve? The evidence isn’t terribly promising. From 2011-2014, public school kids outperformed voucher students on statewide test scores. Those using vouchers performed better in limited instances, but the research hasn’t shown whether voucher schools or other factors were responsible.
What if allowing students and their families to control tax dollars is a “moral imperative?” Wisconsin Governor Scott Walker says it is: “I trust parents, and I know in the end that if you give them the best choices possible, they’re going to make the choice that is best for their son or daughter.”
I trust parents, too. After all, I am married to one. But will all parents have the best choices available to them? Wisconsin requires voucher schools to assist students with special needs only if they can do so with “minor adjustments” as required by federal law. But what if nearby voucher schools require “major adjustments?” Those students would have no choice but to remain in public schools if an accommodating voucher facility is too far from home. Their share of tax dollars? Stuck.
And what about the school districts? Is it fair that those where parents stay will remain well-funded, while others would lose tax dollars when students go elsewhere? A zero-sum game of voucher schools versus public districts could exacerbate the financial inequity that states try to correct by allocating funds: Districts that lose students and tax dollars still have to educate those who remain.
Speaking of fairness: One third of households in the US don’t have children living at home. Should those taxpayers also get to choose where their school tax dollars go, since children grow up to become members of society and the economy?
Imagine if states distributed back to households other tax dollars ostensibly raised to support a common good. For instance, states levy gasoline taxes to pay for general road maintenance. What if they gave drivers a share of those tax dollars to repair only the roads on which they live? The drive on the remaining public roads might be a little bumpy.
There might be a better way to fund public education, and a better way to spend tax dollars. But it’s hard to imagine that states with tight budgets (or governors running for president) will pursue them anytime soon. That’s a shame, to say the very least.
A couple of years ago, a friend in Florida (a state with a voucher program) was happy—and lucky—to be able to drive her children across town for playdates with mine. Her kids didn’t go to school with their neighbors and they never became friends. Today: Our children are pals with classmates living in four different houses around our block.
Property taxes that support our neighborhood public school are a good deal for our kids. For us, at least, it is a price worth paying. They connect us to each other: Just like a smooth, shared, well-maintained road.
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Posts and comments are solely the opinion of the author and not that of the Tax Policy Center, Urban Institute, or Brookings Institution.