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Campaign for Fiscal Equity

Tue, Feb 12, 2008

Property Tax Cap Would Exact High Toll On Schools

By Marc Bernstein, OpEd, Newsday

Gov. Eliot Spitzer's proposal to cap school-district-generated local property taxes may address one of New York State's crucial issues: high property taxes. But it will exacerbate another: inequitable funding of public schools.

While New York cannot continue to have its residents forced from their homes by oppressive taxes, neither can it permit its two-tier education system of haves and have-nots to continue to bury the futures of millions of children. And we know that Long Island is one of the most segregated communities in the country, and with segregated schools usually comes inadequately funded schools.

Most people are aware of the steep and never-ending increase in property taxes, which is especially painful now as property values fall. But I wonder if they are aware of the enormous differences in school spending. For example, some Long Island school districts spend well over $22,000 per year per student, while others spend half that. The quality and amount of educational services that can be purchased with that difference is enormous.

The solution is straightforward: Schools should be funded through the state income tax, not the property tax. The imposition of a property tax cap tied to the inflation rate would punish all school districts - but especially the poorer schools, the ones that have found it impossible to meet the costs of rising utilities, pension, health insurance and so on, and still have any money remaining to pay for educational improvements for their challenged populations.

The state should establish a common per-pupil expenditure level. Each school district would receive state aid commensurate with its number of students, regionally adjusted for the cost of living, and taking into consideration that students from poverty or with special needs require disproportionately higher spending.

This approach would assure parents that their children will receive a sound basic education no matter where they live, regardless of their school district's property wealth. Homeowners, especially senior citizens on fixed incomes, would no longer pay a disproportionate percentage of their incomes to property taxes.

The pace of school spending would be slowed, as the state would decide the amount of permissible expenditures per student. And if the state were required to pay for all new programs it mandated and districts had to make choices within a fixed per-pupil ceiling, yearly increases in school expenses would be significantly limited.

The path toward setting a guaranteed state-financed minimum for per-pupil spending was paved by the state's highest court in the landmark Campaign for Fiscal Equity case. The court ruled that the state must provide New York City with additional money so that its spending per pupil approaches that of other districts.

Of course, there are issues that must be considered. Some communities may insist on spending more money than the state provides, and they should have the right to do so through a special resident property tax that they impose on themselves by a supermajority vote.

Marc Bernstein is the superintendent of schools for the Valley Stream Central High School District.

Parents from across the state march on the Capitol in Albany to show support for CFE.
CFE Litigation CFE v. State of New York
In 2006, after 13 years in the Courts, the New York State Court of Appeals affirmed the right of every public school student in New York to the opportunity for a sound basic education and the state’s responsibility to adequately fund this right, but deferred to the Governor and the Legislature to determine the appropriate amount. more >