Funding for education is a huge topic everywhere. The system has been broken for years and no one has seemed interested in fixing it. The main problem has long been in local funding for education. Property taxes have been the source of local funding for education and the problem that are inherent with the use of property taxes as the main source of education funding are obvious yet oddly ignored.
There are two fundamental problems with the education system’s reliance on property taxes. The first is that it is not a stable source of income as many school districts discovered when the housing bubble burst. When the housing market was strong, many school districts had a fairly strong revenue stream through property taxes as home values were high and thus taxes were higher. After the housing bubble, however, property values dipped which lowered taxes while more houses were empty as they went through foreclosure and no taxes were being paid at all for these empty residences. This began to put a lot of school districts under financial strain as funding went down.
The other problem with relying on property taxes is the unequal distribution of funds that are inherent in the system. In a more affluent neighborhood, the property values are higher and fewer houses are left empty so the property taxes are higher. In lower income neighborhoods and in rural areas, the property taxes are lower, houses are more spread out, and more houses tend to be vacant for longer periods of time so taxes are lower. This essentially creates a system of haves and have-nots. Those schools in higher income areas have more funding and a system is set up in which neighboring school districts can have huge variances in the amount of money that is available per student.
Minnesota has recognized this problem and is trying to do something about it. A bill was introduced in the state legislature by Representative Bob Barrett to address the issue and now the Minnesota Senate is set to review and vote on a bill that would seek to take similar measures toward funding equity. The bill proposes to add an additional $110 million over the next two years for equalization of education funding across the state. DFL Senate Tax Committee Chair Rod Skoe was the chief author of the bill and noted that the state is supposed to equalize funding but that the efforts in this have not been updated in around 20 years. The bill would also allow some school districts to pass operating levies without first seeking voter approval in order to raise operating funds.
While this bill and the one in the Minnesota House do not fix the funding system, they at least serve as a patch for the system. That is good thing but just not good enough. It is time for the government to step up and fix the system rather than try to cover it. With all of the recent turmoil in education funding due to tightening budgets and sequestration, something needs to be done to ensure the quality of education for all students. That may mean allocating funds in a permanent manner from another source that cannot be touched for other purposes, like the increased sales taxes proposed in the Governor’s budget, but a permanent change is needed. The education system just may be the most important fundamental right in our country and is something that needs to be preserved first and foremost.