Thursday, November 30, 2006

The Advocate
Richard Blassberg

If Not Eliot, Then Who?

Of all the issues that Governor Eliot Spitzer will face on January 1, 2007, the funding of public education is by far and away the most critical and significant challenge to the prosperity, indeed the survival of the People New York State. Clearly, the present formula, a patchwork of federal, state, and local funding sources, is not working, and
has not been working, for several years. What we have been laboring under for far too long has been a system of “pass the buck,” where both federal and state government have imposed unfunded mandate after unfunded mandate upon local school districts to where many have reached the breaking point.

Few educators, and fewer legislators, will argue that there is any equity from school district to school district. The Equalization Process has failed miserably under its own weight. However, the problem is not insoluble, but merely one that will require courage, leadership, and clear thought. If a governor who was elected by a record seventy percent of voters, one who stood up to Big Business, and special interests fails to get it done, then the prospects for our state will be bleak, indeed.

The truth no New York State governor has had the honesty, or the guts, to face, is the fact that the theory under which we finance public education is fundamentally flawed. There is absolutely no reasonable justification for predicating responsibility for the funding of public education upon ownership of real property within a given municipality. We are not, after all, financing sewers, roads, lighting districts, public water supply, or something that is specifically created and maintained for the benefit and enhancement of real property enjoyment or value.

Education is the responsibility of every citizen, both in a national, and a statewide sense. However, because education is one of those areas that states have traditionally held under the mantle of States Rights, citizens must think in terms of the resources of their state when calculating what may be gathered to underwrite public school
education. And, while the federal government continues to make demands, and proffer programs, the federal contribution to individual school districts is generally too miniscule to factor in.

In 1985, when I served on the Brewster School Board, our annual budget was somewhere around $17 million, and the federal contribution was $15 thousand, less than one tenth of one percent. People who live in rented quarters, corporations that have received property tax abatement, all share an equal responsibility for the education of the community’s youth. Under the present system many members of the community escape that responsibility, thereby thrusting a disproportionate burden on the shoulders of residential property owners. As it stands now, in most communities, school taxes generally comprise at least 2/3 of most homeowner’s property tax bill.

Here in Westchester taxpayer revolts are common, and school budgets frequently require more than one vote for passage. People living on fixed, or retirement, income often have to sell their homes and move, as they can no longer keep up with ever-growing school taxes. And, conversely many young couples, upon getting married,
discover that even with two incomes they cannot afford to live in the community in which they grew up.

Additionally, the failure of both the governor, and the legislature, over several decades, to deal with the growing inequities has caused the State Court of Appeals to step in, mandating solutions requiring billions of dollars to remedy the problem.

The solution is not rocket science. Quite simply, the bulk of the money needed to provide public education must come from the general funds of the state. Those funds must be raised through increased individual, and corporate income taxes. The state must determine exactly what it will cost to give children, at every level, K-12, a quality
education, and then provide those funds to each and every school district. Then, and only then, will there be equity and uniformly high standards across the state.

Naturally, more affluent districts would always be free to add enhancements to their curricula and programs by any number of funding initiatives. However, under an income tax funded system every individual and every corporation would be required to pay their fair share toward an obligation that is truly everyone’s, the education of our youth. Hopefully, Eliot Spitzer will have the courage and the vision to finally face up to this growing problem, and finally turn it around.

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