A Teachable Moment

Former local teacher union pesident Morty Rosenfeld periodically attempts to make sense of the increasingly senseless world of public education.

Federal Tax Code and School Budgets

Most of New York State relies heavily on the property tax to support its local public schools. As a result, communities with a deep property base have generally had outstanding public schools, while property poor districts have been unable to provide the same level of quality. The inherent unfairness of tying the quality of a child’s education to the zip code of his residence is a problem that has had more than its share of lip service and much less serious political discussion than it deserves.

The recent changes in the tax code restricting the deductibility of state and local taxes and mortgage interest will make the discussion of how we finance our public schools even more vital. In communities like the Long Island suburb in which I live, it is almost impossible to have a conversation with a fellow citizen without the subject of ever-escalating property taxes coming up. While most communities have historically supported their local school budgets, they have done so grudgingly. Here in New York, the exasperation over ever-rising property taxes led our craven politicians to pass a property tax cap rather than reassess how we raise money to support our public institutions. While the property tax cap has and will continue to significantly damage our public schools, public pressure to reduce these taxes even further is a sure thing now that the federal government is reduced its subsidy of home ownership.

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Tax Reform and Public Education

Financing education off of a property tax is among the worst tax policies we live with in New York and elsewhere. Families living next door to each other in identical homes may have widely disparate incomes; yet, they pay the same amount to support their public schools. Property taxes are unfair on a number of levels. In communities with meager tax bases, local public schools tend to be resource starved, although they often are charged with educating the neediest students. While most of the politicians I’ve spoken to over my years as a teacher union leader recognize this, just about none of them was willing to attempt to lead the way towards a more progressive way of financing public education.

Dependent, therefore, on the property tax to finance our schools for the foreseeable future, the tax reform talk coming out of Washington should be of concern to supporters of public education. Among the proposals being discussed by the Trump administration is an end the deductibility of state and local taxes from federal tax returns. In high tax states like New York and California, such a move would throw gasoline on the ever smoldering fires of property tax rebellion and create irresistible pressures to hold the line on property taxes beyond the two percent tax cap we already have on such taxes in New York or Prop 13 mandates in California. While efforts to end these deductions have failed in the past, with Republicans in control of all branches of the federal government, and with the impact of repeal of these deductions falling disproportionately on higher tax blue states, repeal would seem to have a much better chance this time around.

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