Our Views: Tackling inequality in public education

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Give state Comptroller Tom DiNapoli credit.

In a recent talk at Temple Emanuel in Great Neck, DiNapoli acknowledged the failure of public education to address income inequality.

The problem, DiNapoli said, was how to reform a system long based on property taxes.

Do you limit the amount more affluent school districts spend? Do you subsidize less affluent school districts? And if you do revise school funding, who allocates the money?

All good and difficult questions. But despite the difficulty, they are all well worth answering.

As we have said, public schools in this country spend more money on children of affluent families than they do on less affluent families, giving children of affluent families a leg up from an early age.

The example we cited was the neighboring Great Neck and Sewanhaka school districts.

In the 2016-17 school year, Great Neck will spend $34,455 per student and Sewanhaka will spend $22,759 per student – a difference of nearly $12,000. 

The main reason for the disparity between school districts is how they are financed — property taxes.

In practice this means that areas with higher priced homes and larger commercial districts have more money to spend than districts with lower priced homes and little or no commercial districts.

State aid does even the playing field somewhat by generally giving more to less affluent school districts than affluent school districts.

But the limitation of existing state aid formulas is illustrated by the example of Great Neck and Sewanhaka. They include the state aid.

As we have also said, the answer to this disparity must be incremental. 

Too many families have based their decision on where to live based on the quality of the local school district and the value of too many homes is based on that quality.

But that doesn’t mean doing nothing.

To start, the Legislature should set a floor for per pupil spending in this state that ensures each student a quality education. The per pupil spending should be adjusted to reflect differences in cost of living across the state. 

The Legislature should then eliminate the tax cap on school districts that fall below the floor on per pupil spending.

The state-mandated tax cap has helped freeze into place the disparity in spending between school districts. School districts trying to bridge the spending gap must now get a supermajority of 60 percent in budget votes to exceed the cap, making it more difficult for school districts to increase spending per student.

The Legislature should then commit to a set percentage increase in state aid for lower spending school districts for a set number of years. This will be used to bridge the gap between school districts and provide more time for lower spending school districts to plan their budgets.

The question then is what to do with more affluent school districts.

At a minimum, state aid to more affluent school districts should be limited, in part to help pay for the increases to lower spending and usually less affluent school districts.

If the voters in more affluent school districts want to spend more on their schools, they should be allowed to do so. But let them pay for it.

This is not just an issue of leveling the playing field, although it is hard to call ourselves a land of opportunity if we give the children of the affluent the edge from the very get go.

But at a time when businesses in this country are struggling to find qualified people to fill existing jobs and the country competes in a global economy, the country’s economic future is tied to its ability to give a quality education to all our children.

The time to start is now.

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