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Offering Simple Lessons in Public School Finance

Public education requires money, and a lot of it. The commitment to provide good schools and quality instruction for every child between ages 5 and 18 has a real cost. The price rises dramatically when we further commit to educating all students, regardless of their needs. The promise to leave no child behind requires significant funding, so our citizens must be willing to make a commitment to our children through their tax dollars.
 
Unfortunately, we too often define “our children” as the children who live in our town, not those who live elsewhere. Public education in America is funded largely by property taxes, and property values — like property tax rates — vary widely from place to place. My state, Connecticut, is by most measures the wealthiest state in the country, but it is also the state with the widest wealth disparity. Nothing reflects that disparity as much as property values.
 
Click here for Connecticut Voices for Children’s most recent statewide tax incidence analysis.
 
Fairfield County is one of the richest counties in America. Its largest city, Bridgeport, is, however, the fourth-poorest city in Connecticut. A three-bedroom, three-bath house with a one-third-acre lot in Bridgeport is available for $235,000, while a similar house in Westport is listed at $975,000. The house in Bridgeport is near the top of the housing market there; the house in Westport is near the bottom. Those differences have a dramatic effect on the money available to educate children. These two houses are only 11 miles apart but are on separate planets.
 
Policy decisions that towns make exacerbate not only housing values but the demands placed on the school system. Wealthier suburban towns use zoning laws to maintain the “traditional charm” of their towns. They limit the number and location of multifamily homes and apartments. Some towns have minimum lot sizes.
 
Attempts to create publicly funded affordable housing in many cities never get past zoning board hearings. Housing values are kept high, the number of residents is kept relatively low, and so the town can afford to invest in robust public schools.
 
Click here for investigative reporting on wealthy Connecticut communities’ discriminatory housing practices.
 
The disparity between the money available for urban schools and wealthy suburban schools is also affected by the amount of land available to be taxed. Government buildings do not pay property taxes. More importantly, colleges and hospitals in Connecticut — though they often have huge endowments and cash reserves — are nonprofits and therefore do not pay taxes. Of the 10 poorest cities in Connecticut, nine have hospitals; the four poorest cities have two hospitals each. An extreme case is New London, a city of 26,000 people on only 6.6 square miles of land. With a hospital, three colleges and several government buildings, nearly half of their land is nontaxable. The city budget is inherently stressed.
 
Not surprisingly, New London’s educators are among the lowest-paid in the state. New teachers and paraprofessionals begin their careers there, get a year or two of experience and then apply for positions in wealthier suburban towns that can afford to pay higher wages. As a former teacher, I can assure you that it requires a few years of experience to begin mastering the craft. New London schools, like many similar districts, provide teachers that experience, only to have wealthier districts reap the benefits.
 
The difference in our educational policies and our healthcare policies has a dramatic impact on school funding. Schools, except for magnet and technical schools, are exclusively for the people of their city. Hospitals are for people of the region. Bridgeport schools serve Bridgeport students; Bridgeport Hospital serves people from throughout Fairfield County. The City of Bridgeport must plow and maintain the roads to the hospital, pay the police who are stationed there, and provide countless other resources to the hospital, which of course pays no taxes.
 
A resident of Westport who needs medical care pays nothing to Bridgeport for access to its hospital. A Bridgeport student, however, has no access to Westport’s public schools. Westport residents and politicians often brag about how their excellent public schools improve their property values. How valuable would that property be, however, if Westport residents had no access to a hospital? How would their schools be funded if the city had to build, run and maintain its own acute care hospital? What would happen to Westport if our healthcare policies and our educational policies were the same? Our public polices at the city, state and national levels are constructed so those questions are never answered.
 
Click here for reporting on efforts to advocate for reforming Connecticut’s regressive property tax policies.
 
These policies compound in a way that has a dramatic impact on a city’s ability to provide education to its children. Housing policies force our poorest citizens into urban areas, which then requires those cities to provide costly public services. Public schools are expensive, even in cities that can only provide bare-bones education.
 
The result is that our poorest cities require their residents to pay a far higher percentage of their income in taxes than do wealthier cities whose residents could afford a much higher tax rate.
 
This effect is clear when we return to Bridgeport and Westport. The mill rate – meaning the dollars taxed per $1,000 of the property’s assessed value – in Bridgeport is 43.5 percent. In Westport, it is 18 percent. If a resident of Bridgeport and a resident of Westport buy identical $30,000 cars, the Bridgeport resident pays $13,050 in property tax on the car, while the Westport resident pays $5,421.
 
The average per capita income in Bridgeport for 2020 was $24,430. The average per income in Westport was $93,089. The Westport resident who makes 3.81 times more than the Bridgeport resident is paying 59 percent less in property taxes on the same car.
 
Each city’s school funding is built on that disparity. Bridgeport residents are often unable to pay any more taxes if new costs arise, while Westport residents could easily absorb an increase in their low mill rate.
 
Click here for a 2018 analysis of Bridgeport and Westport’s resource and investment gaps.
While these disparities are nothing new, I believe we are about to reach a point where the crisis in public education funding will become impossible to ignore. As a former vice president of AFT Connecticut (at podium, in photo from 2018), I can’t miss the fact that the majority of our members are public school teachers, healthcare workers and school paraprofessionals – jobs primarily held by women.
 
For years, the funding of education and healthcare has been based on paying wages that do not accurately reflect the responsibility, education and skills required. The message conveyed in the media and across the bargaining table has been that the focus must be on the people being served – students and patients – more than the people (usually women) providing the services. Meanwhile, attorneys are rarely told that they need to be more concerned about justice for their clients than their own wages; we cannot underestimate the role gender plays in that perception.
 
There are clear signs that teachers, nurses and paraprofessionals are fleeing their professions. Women are no longer new or ancillary parts of the workforce; they are the majority.
 
Click here for reporting on the growing exodus of women from the U.S. workforce. 
 
My mother stopped working full time once she had a family. But my daughters see no difference between a woman and a man working because they did not see it in their home growing up. Their friends feel the same way. When they are told that they should accept a job that pays $45,000 but requires a master’s degree because they should sacrifice for the children, they look for another occupation. Our school financing is not built for this new reality.
 
If we want thriving, diverse communities where every child can take advantage of their education to build successful lives, we must change the way we pay for education through our taxes. We have the opportunity today to seize this moment to make fundamental changes. But will we?
 
In 1848, abolitionist Horace Mann stated, “Education then, beyond all other devices of human origin, is a great equalizer of the conditions of men – the balance wheel of the social machinery.”
 
The truth of that statement is clear. But what of the people who do not seek to make conditions equal? What of those people who benefit from the imbalance in the social machinery, and who will benefit even more as the machine becomes less balanced?
 
Click here for recent commentary applying Mann’s vision to challenges facing public education today.
 
Our Congress and governor’s mansions are dominated by multimillionaires who thrive on the disparities in education. Our affluent suburbs are protesting over their children learning that Black people have been harmed by segregation and slavery.
 
These people are not seeking to make their communities more diverse or the surrounding communities more successful. They are not building bridges; they are building bunkers at their city limits.
 
The inequity created by how our taxes fund public education is not an unintended consequence. It is the intended result. Robust schools require all our citizens to see public education as a public good. It cannot remain a zero-sum game that creates winners and losers.
 
It is my fervent hope that we begin seeing public education as a priority necessary for the benefit of all people. It is my fear that as we stand at the crossroads, we will become even more tribal, even more partisan – to our detriment and our shame.
 
Click here for Leavy’s original commentary published at Medium.
 
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