the boys and the girls and fair to the taxpayers as well.” “Fair to the taxpayers” is usually a code phrase for penny-pinching that leads to abysmally niggardly programs. Roberts finally said, “I didn’t say it would be cheap for the taxpayers: I said it would be fair.” The taxpayers in this state are so hacked about the inequities in the present system that if they can be shown that a new system is at least fair, they are more likely to accept the fact that it isn’t cheap. Now let’s look at some of the reform ideas now being debated. One of the simplest is to change school district boundaries. Alamo Heights has more wealth than Edgewood? Throw ’em into the same district and it’ll average out. The trouble is that districts that make financial sense are apt to make administrative chaos. You could even make the whole state into one big school district, as Hawaii has done, but you run into the local v. centralized government question. It’s hard enough to deal with a school bureaucracy in your own backyard: you’re even less likely to be able to have any input into the way your kid’s school is run if the whole schmear is decided in Austin. While the theory that the closer-government-is-to-the-peoplethe-better-it-governs is amply disproved by, among others, numerous county commissioners in this state, certainly the condition of the federal government, that unresponsive behemoth, is no argument for centralization. In addition, folks are particularly apt to be anti-centralization in the field of education: demands for local control are even hitting urban school districts, relatively small governmental units. People care much more and in a more personal way about what happens to their kids in school than they do about the national defense posture or the state highway system. Another reform proposal has been christened “power equalizing.” The idea is to guarantee every school district a given yield for any tax rate the district chooses to impose on itself. If two districts, whatever their relative wealth and tax base, levy school property taxes at the same rate, the state would guarantee that the per-pupil revenue for each district would be the same. The state would simply take the surplus from rich districts and give it to poor districts. Power equalizing would also allow for local enrichment programs the rich districts could set their tax an eensy-bit higher and still come up with a bucket of cash for coaches, bands, libraries, better teachers or whatever. The trouble is that rich districts are not apt to be cooperative about handing over surpluses and the local enrichment option will lead to more disparities. Also, the system depends on local property taxes which are inefficient, regressive and wildly disparate. NOW THE ONE reform almost everyone agrees on is changing the 4 The Texas Observer property tax system. The first step would be to have property assessed at its full market value. It doesn’t take a genius to notice that property tax assessments in this state are an outrageous mess. It is not necessary to point the finger at any one area it would be miraculous to find any city in the state that has a just, coherent and uniform assessment system. In more civilized parts of the country, the states make periodic studies of the relationship between market values and assessments. In 31 states, there is a small tax, called a documentary stamp tax, levied on real estate transfers that pays for such studies. The tax requires the price of property when it is sold to be reported to the state, thus giving the state a means to check assessed value against market value. The Texas Legislature has resisted such a tax in the past. A related problem with the property tax is its unequal application. For example, some localities tax cars as property, others don’t. Other types of property, such as stocks and bonds, are not taxed at all for school purposes. Another proposal is that instead of trying to reform local property taxes, we adopt full state funding, financing education entirely by more progressive, broad-based state taxes. There are two major objections. One is simply the loss of revenue. The state would have to replace a billion dollars a year in local school property taxes. 5 The second objection has already been mentioned in another context loss of local control. If Texas opts for full-state funding, which is unlikely, it will have to consider at least one new tax, unless it simply raises the sales tax to an untenable high. The alternatives are: a statewide property tax, hopefully based on market value; a corporate profits tax, which wouldn’t raise enough money to make a significant difference compared to the $1 billion lost in property taxes; or a personal income tax. The level of public discussion about state income tax is still so low in Texas that the idea ranks somewhere behind cholera in popularity. As a matter of political reality, it is doubtful that Texas is within 10 years of enacting such a tax. But it is high time we stopped letting our elected officials get away with demagoguing on the idea, pretending that they are bravely standing between us and this pernicious tax, which happens to be the most progressive yet invented. Here is a rundown on the financing systems proposed and in progress by assorted government and private groups: TEXAS STATE TEACHERS ASSOCIATION TSTA’s Task Force on School Finance and Program has come up with a proposal that’s long on program and short on finance. In fact, the report doesn’t address itself to finance at all: it is a program concerning how to distribute school funds, but rather overlooks the problem of where those funds are to come from. The TSTA proposal is actually a sort of spiffy version of the Minimum Foundation Program: it might be entitled the Adequate Foundation Program. It offers a little something for everyone, but most of all for teachers, not a surprising outcome. The plan would create 21,000 new jobs for teachers, of whom there are a surplus these days. Now here is a typically revolutionary proposal from the TSTA report: “Classroom teacher unit allocations would be based on Average Daily Membership, including the additional ADM that would be earned through a fully implemented Kindergarten Program.” Don’t ask, don’t ask. The whole trouble with the TSTA report is that it’s gotten so balled up in ADA’s and ADM’s that it has failed to address itself to the central proposition that the quality of a child’s education shall not be determined by the wealth of his neighbors. Aside from that, there’s nothing much wrong with it and nothing terribly thrilling about it. They propose a 30 percent local / 70 percent state cost sharing ratio with their total program costing $2 billion \(up from report also proposes that the allocation formula should provide a level of staffing and funding for all school districts comparable to that of the better school districts currently operating. They kick in a little extra for transportation and maintenance costs, a $70 per month salary increase, a complete kindergarten program, some extra for compensatory education and a few other goodies. They too recommend that the full market value of property be used for tax assessment
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