Property Taxes and School Funding...Why teach this topic?

   In the United States, stark inequalities can exist in schools that are only miles apart. Poor students in an urban area might attend a decaying school while their suburban counterparts enjoy gleaming buildings and amenities. The system of school funding in the United States is viewed as a significant cause of the uneven quality of education across districts -- simply put, areas with greater wealth and income from property taxes can afford better schools. In each state, schools receive state and federal money to carry out specific mandates (to educate disabled kids, for example). However, nearly half of total school revenues come from local property; these in turn make up about 98% of all local sources. This heavy reliance on local property taxes results in what Jonathan Kozol calls a system of "calculated unfairness". In New York, the wealthiest schools spend $2,280 more per student than the poorest schools -- making the state the most unequal of all states.

    Some reformers in the past and present have argued for a national system of education with uniform standards, testing, and funding across the country, as is common in most other industrialized nations. Yet there are compelling reasons to retain real property taxes as a source of school funding. Property taxes provide a more stable source of revenue than sales or income taxes. In addition, by taxing nonresidents or people with vacation homes, the tax can ease burdens on local homeowners. Therefore, some policy-makers have turned to property tax reforms to alleviate inequality, such as expanding the tax base to encompass economically diverse communities or asking state governments to 'level-up' aid to equalize disparities across districts.

    The idea to create teaching materials about property taxes arose in discussions among citizens and professionals working in the administration of the real property tax (the Real Property Tax System Alliance) and organized by the New York State Office of Real Property Services (ORPS). Professor Gerald Benjamin, with the support of the Alliance, ORPS and a grant from the Lincoln Land Institute, offered a course at the State University of New York at New Paltz in 2003 that focused on developing a curriculum on the property tax. Justice for All? Property Taxes and Schools is the result of these efforts. The unit aims to engage students in deliberation and decision-making about policies that not only affect them as taxpayers, but that shape the course and character of our democracy.