Editorial: School funding: Real issue is not on how taxes are raised
The state’s school finance laws are again under public scrutiny because of escalating property taxes even in the face of declining school budgets. Politicians and residents opposed to Act 60 and Act 68 have been quick to pounce on the legislation’s shortcomings and demand reform, or use the issue to fan the fires of discontent to gain favor (by virtue of a public disconnect with reality) among voters.
Along with this hoopla comes the inevitable lament that the finance laws are overly complex and we need to simplify the system.
Well, here’s the truth in a nutshell: the details are complicated, but the big picture isn’t. The big picture is that Vermont needs to raise a lot of money to pay for public education and that whatever funding system we propose is going to be attacked by one group or the other. Furthermore, any funding mechanism is going to be complex if it is predicated on one’s ability to pay (which is should be), simply because determining one’s ability to pay gets convoluted. So, shy of a replacing the property tax with a tax on income (which was shot down by Republicans back when Act 60 was being debated in the mid-1990s even though it would have been much easier to implement), let’s agree that school funding is going to be complex.
But is complexity itself the main problem? Hardly. Rather the focus on the funding mechanism needs to stay on one goal: fairness.
Do students in Middlebury, Randolph and Whiting have the same educational opportunities (via equitable funding) as students in South Burlington, Manchester and Stowe? If so, that’s a major accomplishment that all Vermont residents should celebrate. If not, changes should be recommended to reinstate that level playing field, but being very careful to guard against measures that would make the playing fields less equitable.
But that’s still not the root of today’s consternation.
What’s happening today that is particularly irksome is property taxes are rising even though school budgets are level-funded or reduced. Again, it’s not rocket science to figure out why.
• Student populations are down in many schools, meaning less state aid flows to the school (as state aid is based in part on a per pupil payment from the state — the more students, the more aid the school gets);
• Financial assistance from the state has been cut in the past several years (no counting the two-year federal stimulus money) which has to be made up by local property taxes — a factor that will only make things worse when the federal stimulus money dries up next year;
• As property values drop and as income drops, more people qualify for property tax rebates, placing a greater burden on those who don’t get the rebates — which drives tax rates up even higher on a smaller pool of taxpayers.
We’re not suggesting the current funding mechanism can’t be improved, but we are saying that any alternative system of funding will have many of the same problems and will cause just as much of a stink among detractors. Taxpayers need to accept that reality and press state politicians — and candidates — to address the tougher questions.
We encourage readers not to fall prey to candidates who espouse tax reform, but offer no specific plan. Make them outline what taxes they would raise and show you how it raises the same dollar amount. If they can’t, they’re selling false promises.
What we know is that the toughest issue is not reinventing a different way to pay school taxes, though that is the issue opponents of Act 60 and 68 would have Vermonters believe, but rather figuring out ways to spend the money we have more effectively to produce better outcomes.
That’s the crux of the issue and where our collective focus should be.