The United States Constitution bestows plenary authority to govern education on the states rather than the federal government. Accordingly, in the American governmental system all the powers of local governments including county governments and school districts are derived from the state. Whatever authority the state grants to local governments, and, therefore, to local school districts, the state also can withdraw or modify.
Still, the tradition of local control is rooted in our democratic principles. It also symbolizes our democracy in action. Local control enables a local school system to be accountable to its constituents rather than being controlled remotely by a governmental entity that imposes its political agenda which is incongruent with local priorities and needs. Remote governing bodies, such as county or state governments, therefore, are not as accountable to the standards necessary to provide quality education as are local schools.
A top-down, state dominated educational system is contrary to our democratic principles and traditions especially when it comes to the governance of our schools. Increased control by the state through state politically appointed county departments of education, such as in New Jersey and California, means less local control because control is a zero sum game. As such, every increase in or recapture of state or county power can only result from a corresponding loss at the local level.
Special attention is given to the states of New Jersey and California because they embody the problems associated with state domination of local school systems as executed through the level of county government. During recent decades, the cherished home rule tradition of school governance in New Jersey and California was eroded to the point where local control of education has been largely superseded by the state and its extension, county government.
The rising power of the states of New Jersey and California (Fusarelli and Cooper, 2009) grew from the states’ increasing domination of school finance and, therefore, policy making because of the strings the states attached to funding. Legal challenges to funding inequities and disparities led to court decisions, such as Serrano v. Priest in California and Abbott v. Burke in New Jersey, establishing financial neutrality as the basis for school funding. The states tried to remedy the disparities among districts with the infusion of incremental state funds and regulation.
Subsequent rulings focused on adequacy which required state governments to provide resources to disadvantaged districts such that the provision of education adequately met their constitutional requirements. New Jersey’s state constitution went even further because of its provisions guaranteeing a thorough and efficient education or a “T&E” education as it became known and manifested in the Abbott v. Burke court decision.
Legal challenges to subsequent state funding formulas such as law suits to address financial inequities and tax base disparities have caused states to greatly increase taxes so as to generate the necessary funds with which to offset the inequalities. Nowhere is this more predominant than in the New Jersey and California.
But greatly increased state taxes and spending have led to corresponding increases in state regulation of local school districts so as to enable states to better control the use of state educational aid. This, in turn, has led to exponential increases in state mandates for administrative regulation, program requirements, standards, and budgetary controls. Naturally, as state mandates and control over local schools increased, the size of state and county bureaucracies increased with a corresponding increase in the costs being passed on to local school districts.
The rise in the power of the state has paralleled the increase in the state’s control over public education finance. The transformation of the state’s educational finance system to a more centralized model has resulted in a corresponding loss of control by the local taxpayer over educational policy, programs, and services. More importantly, it has greatly decreased the ability of local citizens as well as the state government to hold schools accountable for educational performance.
County government (Fischel, 2009) is the entity through which states have traditionally executed their authority. But County government, as the implementation arm of the state, is too distant from the provision of education as well as the educational needs and priorities of local communities to be able to hold local schools accountable.
Historically, the American system for organizing school districts has employed two major models based on traditional political boundaries: counties and townships. Every state except Hawaii employs one of these models or a combination as the basis for organizing its schools. Hawaii is the only statewide school district in the nation and its public schools are 100% financed by the state.
The settlers of New England (Fischel, 2009) established the township as the political unit within which school districts were organized and this model spread westward. The Mid-Atlantic and Southern states, however, have generally used the county as the organizing structure for local schools. Indeed, schools in the states (Kenney and Schmidt, 1994, cited in Fischel, 2009) of Maryland, Florida, West Virginia and Louisiana are organized into consolidated countywide districts without individual school districts. For example, (Fischel, 2009, pp. 165-166) “the city of Baltimore is considered a county district in Maryland and is distinct from adjacent, suburban “Baltimore County”; each is a separate (county) school district.”
While such court decisions as Robinson v. Cahill and Abbott v. Burke fundamentally changed the state’s role in education in New Jersey, recreating the office of the Executive County Superintendent of Schools as well as the passage of S1701 into law were similarly profound in their far reaching impact on New Jersey’s school system. Because using property taxes as the primary basis for funding local school districts is inextricably linked to home rule, these actions transcended local taxpayers’ rights to determine the financial and human resources allocations of their local schools. More importantly, these court rulings and laws directly affected local taxpayers’ democratic rights.
Office of the Executive County Superintendent
When New Jersey Governor Corzine signed the CORE Act, CommUNITY Against Regionalization Efforts (2009), Assembly Bill A4 and Senate Bill S19, into law, he transformed the role of county superintendents of education from mere disseminators of state educational policies into powerful Executive County Superintendent of Schools. In so doing, the governor empowered each Executive County Superintendent to begin consolidating all schools into K to 12 districts and ultimately to consolidate all schools within one countywide organization. Indeed, passage of the pending New Jersey Senate bill (New Jersey Department of Education 2010), S450, would eliminate all local school administrators over the level of principal and establish the Executive County Superintendent as the official who will govern and operate all public schools within the consolidated countywide district.
The Executive County Superintendent is a political appointee whose contract calls for him/her to focus on maximizing the reduction of expenses in all of the schools within the county rather than on improving student and school achievement. These political appointees are empowered to veto local school district budgets despite their previous approval by their duly elected local board of education as well as any contracts for vendors or school personnel not covered by a collective bargaining agreement. Also, they have unilateral authority to scale down, postpone, or eliminate any non-mandate protected program or service.
New Jersey gave the Executive County Superintendent unprecedented powers over local school districts through the office of Executive County Superintendent of Schools. These county superintendents have the authority to put New Jersey well on its way to duplicating Maryland’s centralization of power over local school districts at the county level. Indeed, the Executive County Superintendents have the authority to consolidate all of New Jersey’s 600 plus school districts serving more than 1.3 million students statewide within one of 21 countywide districts.
By creating the office of Executive County Superintendent of Schools, New Jersey moved to the verge of replicating the state of Maryland’s county school system model. First, the state of Maryland eliminated all local school officials beyond the level of principal. It then consolidated all of its schools serving less than one million students statewide within one of the 24 countywide districts in each county under an Executive County Superintendent.
Although Maryland abolished all administrators above the level of principal from the local schools in the name of saving money, cutting administrative expenses, and cutting property taxes, these small one time savings were more than exceeded by the ongoing costs of the office of Executive County Superintendent of Schools with its ever increasing bureaucracy. For example, in Maryland, the Montgomery County Department of Education alone has an annual operating budget of approximately $2 billion with nearly 22,000 employees despite having a total student enrollment of less than 138,000. The office of Executive County Superintendent of Schools for Montgomery County, therefore, employs roughly one administrator for every six of its students!
The Executive County Superintendent, who is appointed by the governor, supervises, directs and manages the functions of the County Office of Education as a representative and subordinate of the New Jersey State Commissioner of Education. The Executive County Superintendent oversees all public school districts within his/her county. To accomplish these goals, each county superintendent is given a staff and a budget which are not subject to taxpayer input, approval or elections.
Contrary to core principles of democracy, the Executive County Superintendent has the authority to override a school district’s budget despite its prior approval by its duly elected board of education. He/she can do so without any prior consultation or notification of the elected board of education or the local district’s superintendent or business administrator. Indeed, the Executive County Superintendent’s exercise of a line item veto over non-instructional costs in a local school district’s budget would be contrary to the will of the locally elected board of education that represents the local taxpayers as demonstrated by their previous vote of approval for the vetoed items.
In addition, a board of education is prohibited from transferring funds into any line item that was vetoed by the Executive County Superintendent. The County Superintendent’s line item veto authority covers all non-instructional line items including administrative expenses. The appointed Executive County Superintendent, therefore, could eliminate administrative positions deemed necessary by the elected local board of education who would then lack sufficient recourse.
The Executive County Superintendent is empowered to review all district budgets within the county. He/she has the authority to veto a portion of the district’s budget and the district will have to deduct this portion prior to the budget’s posting on the ballot for the public vote in April. The district is then prohibited from transferring any funds into those line items or spending any funds toward the vetoed items for the fiscal year.
The Executive County Superintendent’s is responsible for ensuring that each school district budget includes sufficient funds to meet the requirements of the state’s Core Curriculum Content Standards (CCCS). The district’s administrative and support services per pupil costs are compared to the state median. The Executive County Superintendent can administer reductions in these areas if the district’s costs exceed the state guidelines.
The Executive County Superintendent is required to review, evaluate, and approve all employment contracts for administrators not covered by a collective bargaining agreement including but not limited to superintendents, assistant superintendents, and business administrators. He/she must also enforce the state mandated caps on accumulated unused vacation and sick days.
According to the School Funding Reform Act (New Jersey Department of Education, 2008), the Executive County Superintendent can withhold or recapture state aid if he/she discovers excessive spending, inefficiencies, or that the district has violated any state law or regulation. Another condition for receiving state aid stipulates that every district must refinance all outstanding debt for which a three percent net present value could be realized.
The Executive County Superintendent enforces the state mandated four percentage point cap on a local school district’s annual property tax levy. The tax levy is also reduced if the district’s budget is found to exceed the state’s calculated adequacy level for that particular district and if the district receives an increase in state aid exceeding the greater of two percent or the Consumer Price Index (CPI.)
The implication behind the creation of the office of Executive County Superintendent of Schools was that it would somehow save the taxpayers’ money and enable the state to have lower property taxes. The experience of such a control model in the state of Maryland contradicts such assumptions as does the New Jersey’s county control model. New Jersey’s 21 counties combine to spend over $6.3 billion annually in property taxes and hold more than $5 billion in outstanding debt. County government places a tremendous burden on New Jersey’s taxpayers especially as compared to those in Connecticut where county government was eliminated in 1960.
While economies of scale apply in the private sector especially in manufacturing, they do not apply as well to the education sector with its value added services. In the education arena it usually takes a defined number of people per capita to provide a defined level of service. Larger school systems such as regional or consolidated countywide school districts, therefore, are more expensive to operate than smaller, local school districts because of their “penalties of scale” (Coffin, 2010, p. 1).
Decentralization rather than centralization brings decision makers closer to the taxpayers and local priorities. Taxpayers have more of a stake in the success of their local school rather than county districts. Indeed, separating the taxpayer from his/her ability to control and influence the operating budget and educational plan of his/her local school district cuts neither costs nor property taxes.
When New Jersey Governor James McGreevey signed S1701 into law on July 1, 2004, as Chapter 73, Public Laws of New Jersey 2004 (New Jersey Department of Education, 2005), the state took a major step in its continued erosion of local control over school districts especially in terms of a district’s surplus, budget flexibility, administrative spending limits, and spending growth limitation adjustments. While this legislation accelerated the loss of local autonomy for school districts the state did not apply it to county and municipal governments even though these levels of government also are funded primarily by local property taxes.
S1701 reduced the maximum allowable district surplus to no more than three percent in the 2004-05 fiscal year and two percent in the 2005-06 fiscal year and beyond. Prior to the passage of S1701, the state prohibited non-Abbott districts from having a surplus of less than six percent. Because a district’s surplus serves as insurance against unforeseen expenses, S1701 forces a district to either cut non-mandate protected educational programs and services such as regular education or increase property taxes.
S1701 required that any surplus in excess of the percentage limitations must be used for property tax relief. But the property tax relief would be implemented by limiting the amount of property taxes a district could levy in the upcoming fiscal year rather than as a direct refund to taxpayers, furthering constraining local autonomy.
S1701 (New Jersey Department of Education, 2005) limited a district’s budgetary flexibility by restricting the growth in the base budget to the higher of two and half percent or the Consumer Price Index (CPI). It also limited Spending Growth Limitation Adjustments (SGLA) that enable districts to meet unbudgeted increases in expenses for such items as hazardous route transportation, courtesy busing, insurance, utilities, or legal services. Once routine budgetary transfers such as line item transfers exceeding ten percent as well as transfers of surplus and unbudgeted revenue now require county approval.
According to the New Jersey School Boards Association (2004), S1701 further eroded local taxpayer control by limiting a district’s use of second ballot questions, often referred to as second questions. By casting votes on second questions, citizens exert control over the authorization of funds for specific educational programs and services that are in addition to the base operating budget. Through the exercise of second questions (New Jersey School Boards Association, 2004, p. 3), “the community determines if it is willing and able to raise the money to fund the expenditure over cap for programs ranging from full-day Kindergarten and after-school enrichment programs to extra-curricular activities.”
S1701 further eroded the ability of local school districts to develop, approve, and implement their operating budgets. Decision making authority over many budgetary items such as the acquisition and allocation of a school district’s financial and human resources were largely transferred to the county level of government as the state’s execution arm. Indeed, (New Jersey School Boards Association, 2004, p. 2) S1701 “lessened a community’s ability to determine school finance matters and related educational policy.”
Upon taking office in January, 2010, New Jersey Governor Christie announced he would withhold $475 million in promised state aid to school districts statewide as part of his effort to close the state fiscal year budget deficit of approximately $2 billion. What makes the governor’s plan significant is that he requires districts to make up for cuts in state aid by using their surplus and reserve account funds.
Governor Christie’s plan requires districts to use all of their excess surplus plus 25% of the reserve accounts for capital, maintenance, emergencies and excess. This means that most non-Abbott districts will lose most if not all of their state aid for the balance of the fiscal year that ends on June 30. Because the state already required districts to roll over any surplus exceeding the two percent level as property tax relief according to S1701, this reduction in surplus will lead most likely to deeper cuts to non-mandate protected educational programs and property tax increases in districts statewide.
While the California Department of Education has the overall responsibility to administer education throughout the state, it does so primarily through California’s 58 counties. Each county department of education oversees the school districts within its boundaries. While the counties collect property taxes on behalf of the state and the mill rate is established in the state constitution, it is the state that determines how much funding including revenue from property taxes each district receives and how those funds are allocated.
But California had enjoyed a long tradition of local control of school district budgets, capital projects, human resources as well as the provision of educational programs and services according to local needs and priorities. The role of the state and county governments in governing and funding local school districts was severely limited. While the state provided a minimal funding level, local school districts levied property taxes to generate the overwhelming majority of their revenues. Taxpayers’ votes determined district budgets as well as the members of their local boards of education. A district’s financial and human resources allocations were based on the district’s educational plan as approved by the duly elected local board of education.
The state ended this tradition by constantly eroding local control through the strings it attached to the funding it provided and the policies it mandated for local school districts. Once the state gained the majority control over school finance, the state was then in a position to also control educational policy in all of the nearly 1,000 school districts.
Today, local school districts depend almost entirely on the state for their revenues and largely lack the authority to raise revenues that only they can control. Because state funds come with powerful strings attached, the state leverages its funding to determine how a district allocates its budget and human resources. Districts have almost no discretion over their use of the majority of state funds.
The strings attached to California’s state aid result in the majority of a district’s funds being restricted only for use according to the state’s mandates. Most of the unrestricted state funding finances the salaries and benefits for a district’s employees. A district’s financial and human resources allocation is overwhelmingly determined by the state according to its one size fits all approach which does not account for differences in local educational needs, priorities, and cost drivers. By controlling school finance and making policy decisions that once were the province of local school districts, California consolidated and centralized the control of education at the state level.
The current recession has adversely impacted the state’s budget over the last few years especially education which is the largest component of California’s expenditures. This has caused the state to pass along revenue cuts, deferrals, and allocation formula adjustments to local school districts despite promises and legislative guarantees to the contrary. Because legislation has forced local school districts to become overwhelmingly dependent on state revenues, districts were forced to depend on unreliable state aid and, therefore, have been disproportionately affected.
But the seeds of California’s fiscal calamity were sown well before the current recession could impact its budget. The roots of the financial crisis are found in California’s history of creating unsustainable state budgets especially during periods of economic growth while simultaneously forcing local school districts to become overly dependent on unreliable state revenue sources. There are three fundamental causes of the fiscal crisis which continue to plague California’s local school districts. These include a major court ruling, state constitutional amendments, and voter passed initiatives.
The first causal factor was the 1971 California Supreme Court’s Serrano v. Priest ruling in which the court declared the system of funding local school districts based on primarily on local property taxes to be unconstitutional if differences in ratables (Fischel, 2001, p. 99) “led to disparities in educational opportunities, which the court apparently took to mean spending per pupil.” This decision not only effectively ended the tradition of local control over school budgets, property tax levies, and capital projects but also led to the centralization of control over school finance at the state level.
But the resultant centralization of school finance at the state level lowered the quality of education generally throughout the state because it separated local taxpayers from their connection or stake in their local schools. This stake derives from the payment of local property taxes for local schools. This demonstrated Fischel’s (2001) homevoter hypothesis because the benefits local taxpayers derived from the quality of the education provided in their local schools funded by their local property taxes were no longer capitalized in their property values. Fischel (2001, p. 129) concludes, “voters are aware of this connection, and that statewide funding especially alienates the majority of the population who have no children in the public school system.”
Fischel (2001) demonstrates how the Serrano v. Priest decision resulted in the passage of Proposition 13 with its dramatic end to local control over the then main source of revenues, local property taxes. According to Fischel (2001,) the Serrano v. Priest decision led to the passage of a state constitutional amendment called Proposition 13 which was the second major cause. The enactment of this legislation in 1978 severely cut the amount of local property tax revenue available to local school districts as well as the amount under local control. The legislation enabled the state to collect and then redistribute local property taxes based on the state’s funding formula rather than according to local needs and priorities.
The third major factor in the reshaping of California’s school finance system was the passage of Proposition 98 in 1988. When voters approved this ballot initiative, the state of California was compelled to guarantee a minimal level of funding for all local school districts throughout the state.
Prior to the Serrano v. Priest ruling, local school districts controlled their budgets including the levying of property taxes to fund school operations. But post Serrano, the state imposed revenue limits on school districts and narrowed the gap in general purpose funding by capping the wealthier districts while providing larger subsidies to low income districts. The (Perry, 2004) ceiling placed on wealthier districts combined with the sliding scale of increases for lower income districts helped the state achieve the equalization standard expressed in the Serrano v. Priest ruling.
But the adoption of Proposition 13 went beyond the Serrano v. Priest ruling in changing the state’s role in school finance by severely limiting a district’s ability to levy and benefit directly from local property taxes. Proposition 13 amended the California State Constitution with its main provisions including:
No property should be taxed at more than one percent of 1975 fair market value; municipalities may impose “special taxes” by a two-thirds vote of the electors; assessments may not grow more than two percent annually from 1975-76 levels, to which they were rolled back, except for property sold after 1975-76; and no increase in state taxes may be enacted without a two-thirds vote of each legislature. (Yudof, Kirp, Levin, & Moran, 2002, p. 798)
Following the passage of Proposition 13, the state was empowered to establish a statewide mill rate, limit millage increases, and, more importantly, prevent local school districts from levying, collecting, and benefiting directly from local property taxes. This overturned the Separation of Sources Act (Barbour, 2007 as cited in Perry & Edwards, 2009) which had granted exclusive control over determining and levying property taxes to local governmental entities including school districts in 1910.
Because of the resultant drastic reduction in the control over and receipt of local property tax revenues, the state was forced to (Yudof et al., 2002, p. 798) “bail them out by using $2.2 billion of the $3 billion state surplus to make up the difference.” While the state gained control over the allocation of locally levied property taxes, the inequities in funding among school districts were then a function of the state’s school funding formula rather than ones caused by disparities in property values and ratables.
Because Proposition 13 and the Serrano v. Priest ruling combined to both severely limit the ability of local school districts to raise their own revenue to fully fund their budgets and centralize the control over school district funding at the state level, the voters amended the constitution by approving Proposition 98 in 1988. Proposition 98 guaranteed that the state would use the local property taxes that it now controlled plus other state tax revenues to fund a minimum level or floor of all local school district budgets.
According to the requirements of Proposition 98, the state guarantees that at least 40% of its general fund resources will be dedicated to funding public education. This guaranteed funding floor is established by modifying the amount a district received in the preceding fiscal year (Edwards & Leichty, 2010) for enrollment, attendance, and statewide income levels.
In 1990, Proposition 111 modified Proposition 98 to the extent that if the state’s General Fund revenues decline, then the growth rate of the guaranteed funding level will be lowered correspondingly. As a constitutional amendment, Proposition 111 enables the state to make “fair share” reductions to the guaranteed funding level during economic downturns (Edwards & Leichty, 2010, p. 5).
The risk to local school district budgets of depending on unreliable revenue from the state’s unsustainable budgets materialized in major way during economic crisis following Governor Schwarzenneger’s election. To alleviate the state’s budget deficit, Governor Schwarzenegger (Picus as cited in Fusarelli & Cooper, 2009) negotiated a one year suspension of Proposition 98. Although the governor guaranteed that the funds would be repaid (Picus as cited in Fusarelli & Cooper, 2009, p. 14) he “did not include them in his annual budget” for the following fiscal year.
Nationwide the soaring cost of under funded state mandates and regulation has forced local school districts to raise property taxes or cut non-mandate protected regular education programs and services resulting in a leveling down of educational quality. California is no exception as Greenhut (2005, p. 1) reports that according to Proposition 4, which was approved in 1979, the state is required “to reimburse local school districts for the mandates it imposes on them. California owes districts more than $3.6 billion.” These deferred payments have caused severe cash flow problems for local school districts.
As the state’s fiscal crisis deepened and with Proposition 98’s guaranteed educational funding being the largest state expenditure (Edwards & Leichty, 2010), the state cut educational funding to the bare minimum. In this way the state not only reduced spending in the current fiscal year (Edwards & Leichty, 2010) but also minimized its obligations going forward. These funding reductions caused districts to cut non-mandate protected regular education programs and services and exacerbated their cash flow problems.
But Proposition 111’s amendments compel the state to accrue a maintenance factor for any shortcomings owed districts resulting from a suspension of or changes in the minimum funding guaranteed in Proposition 98. The maintenance factor (Edwards & Leichty, 2010, p. 5) is the “difference between the actual spending level and what would have been spent under normal growth.” By the second quarter of 2009 the state’s cumulative maintenance factor debt obligation reached $11.2 billion which further highlighted the funding shortfalls for local school districts.
The Serrano v. Priest ruling combined with Propositions 13 and 98 resulted in the state controlling school finance and policy for all of its nearly 1,000 school districts. The state determines how its various educational resources are allocated among the school districts and largely how they will be used.
The state establishes revenue limits for each district. But only through the passage of legislation can the state, rather than the local school district, adjust a district’s revenue limit. When the local property taxes controlled by the state increase, the majority of schools do not benefit because any incremental property tax revenue is applied to the limit and the state’s component is lowered proportionately.
The states of New Jersey and California exemplify the problems associated with state domination of local school systems particularly as executed through the level of county government. State centralized funding leads to a one-size-fits-all approach for education but one that fits no district.
The specific needs of individual school districts vary to such a large degree that they render uniform state funding and policy formulas inadequate. Instead, public school districts need a mass customization of educational funding, control, and policy that can only derive from local control. Oates (1972) supports the notion that public education should be provided at the lowest level. Kenny (1982) also argues for the provision of public education by local school districts.
Baker, Green, and Richards (2008, p. 66) explain how “the local property tax empowers local voters to express what they want for their local public schools.” The consequence according to Baker, Green, and Richards (2008, p. 66) is that “when property taxes become statewide taxes, the political advantages of empowering local citizens and promoting competition and sorting among jurisdictions is lost.” This mass standardization of school finance and policy leads to state funding guidelines that are incongruous with the needs and priorities of local school districts.
It is difficult for state run school systems to be accountable to the taxpayer. California demonstrates its lack of accountability by withholding or deferring funds which it is legally obligated to send to local school districts. As a result, California has “fallen from its position a leader in per-student spending in the 1970’s to now spending well below the national average (Jacobson, 2007, p. 2). As Jacobson (2007, p. 3) explains, because the state has centralized control over local school finance and policy, the state’s “financial resources are distributed in such an irrational way that schools serving similar student populations in similar locations receive different funding.”
California regularly withholds funds that it is required to allocate spend on its public schools but uses these funds to help offset state budget deficits. California has withheld nearly $15 billion of aid for its schools. California owes local school districts more than $3.6 billion in reimbursement for under funded state mandates in violation of Proposition 4 requirements. Moreover, the state’s owes local school districts $11.2 billion in Proposition 111 maintenance factor obligations.
New Jersey is similarly expanding state control and authority through its counties at the expense of local control, autonomy, and accountability. The state increased its bureaucracy and administrative expenses through the greatly expanded Office of The Executive County Superintendent. This appointed official can override decisions made by duly elected boards of education through the exercise of the line item veto.
The authority of the Executive County Superintendent supersedes that of locally elected boards of education effectively rendering local boards of education as no longer the trustees of a district’s financial and human resources whom the taxpayer can hold accountable. Taxpayers have great difficulty holding the state accountable. Examples of this include the state’s recapturing surplus and reserve funds governed by S1701, the failure of the School Construction Corporation, and the continued lack of student and school achievement in the Abbott districts.
Any reduction in local school district control over the levying and allocating of property taxes decreases accountability and adversely affects public school quality. Taxpayers are more involved in, have a much greater stake in their local school districts, and act to hold these school districts accountable when they pay local property taxes directly to their local schools rather than have their local property taxes controlled by the state and redistributed as if they were statewide revenues according to a state funding formula.
Fischel (2001, p. 152) explains the consequences of statewide property tax redistribution using voters without children in the public schools, “At the local level, they are willing to support, or at least not oppose, high levels of spending because better schools add to the value of their homes. At the state level, voters without children do not perceive such an offsetting benefit to their taxes.” Having a lowered sense of ownership in their schools, taxpayers become more complacent as the proportion of state funding increases. This causes a corresponding reduction in the level of accountability required by the stakeholders and the quality of their public schools’ education declines as a result.
State control over schools interrupts the connection taxpayers’ make between their property values and property taxes. As Sonstelie, Brunner, and Ardon explain (Sonstelie, Brunner, & Ardon, 2000, p. 102 as cited in , 2001, p. 136) the “reason that local control produces better schools is that the local property tax system channels the revenues of nonresidential property into public education.” The greater is the proportion of non-residential properties in a district’s mix of ratables, the lower is the tax burden on residential properties. This lowers their “tax price” (Fischel, 2001, p. 136) making their local schools relatively less expensive and as a result, taxpayers are “induced to spend more on education.”
Typical taxpayers resemble investors because they want their major asset, their home, to appreciate in value. As Fischel (2001, p. 136) explains how “voters tolerate property taxes only when the public services financed by them are capitalized in home values.” Home owners have a vested interest in the success of their local schools because the credit rating of a school district’s host municipality is largely dependent on the financial soundness and credit worthiness of its schools. The higher is a municipality’s or a school district’s credit rating; the lower is its debt service expense.
The greater is the quality of the local school district, the greater is the taxpayer’s property value because the demand for quality education leads to a higher market price. As a result, taxpayers strive to protect and improve their property values. They evaluate the quality of their school district so as to maximize their property values. But if their school district’s quality deteriorates or is expected to decline, typical Tieboutian taxpayers will vote with their feet.
By voting with their feet, taxpayers choose the local school district that best meets their needs and one that will contribute to their property values. But taxpayers vote not only with their feet but also on school district operating budgets, capital projects, and board of education members. Through the exercise of these votes, taxpayers control the quality of education provided by their local schools as well as the level of property taxes levied. Their collective decisions lead to a Pareto efficient allocation of local public education. In this context, Baker, Green, and Richards (2008, p. 21) state that the “Tiebout model represents the most basic form of school choice.”
Tiebout (1956) argues that because crowding and congestion affect the provision of public goods and services, it is inefficient to provide public education at a centralized level and public education is more efficiently provided at the local level. Fischel (2001) supports this conclusion with his assessment of California’s centralized school finance system in which taxpayers lost control over local schools and property taxes. This led to reduced levels of taxpayer involvement in and support for public education.
Fischel (2001, p. 161) concludes “the apparent quality of public education has declined nationwide as the states’ share of funding for it has risen.” It is essential that taxpayers rather than states or counties have control over their local schools so they will be motivated to properly fund, support and improve public education.
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