Dear Commons Community,
Rebecca Sibilia, Chief Executive of EdBuild, a school funding advocacy organization, has an op-ed in today’s New York Times that makes a compelling case that it is time to examine the number of schools districts (more than 13,000) in this country. Her argument is that changing school district borders would help to get more public school money where it most needs to be, in poorer areas. Everything she says is true, fair and rational and would go a long way to level the playing field of school funding. As she points out, there have been some small successes in balancing school funding, however, the politics of district governance and taxing prerogatives are among the most contentious that exist in state and local politics. Changing these boundaries are legislatively not simple and there is little interest among either Democrats or Republicans to take the issue on. Furthermore, the federal government has very limited jurisdiction in school district governess. And in many states, school district boundaries would involve changes to state constitutions. Regardless, the case that Ms. Sibilia makes is a noble one, but it would probably take a political magic wand to make it happen on a large scale.
Below is her entire op-ed.
New York Times
The Sheer Number of School Districts Is Tilting the Playing Field
By Rebecca Sibilia
May 14, 2020
If we really want to balance school budgets in the wake of the coronavirus — and create more long-term equity in our public school system — we need to come to terms with the idea that we need far fewer than the 13,000 school districts that are currently in operation in the United States.
Today, the lines that define school district borders are largely arbitrary. They’re zigzagging areas of local control, a term that conflates two separate concepts: the ability to oversee a group of neighborhood schools and the right to keep the proceeds from property wealth in narrow jurisdictions. The more exclusively these borders are drawn, the more advantage accrues to wealthy districts, each of which has an independent financial structure, at the expense of the students next door.
This structure may explain the educational geography of Camden County in southern New Jersey, which contains 35 school districts, 23 of which are within a five-mile radius of the city of Camden. Half of these districts serve fewer than 1,000 students apiece, with wide wealth disparities. The median property in Gloucester City School District is worth about $120,000, but four miles away in Haddonfield Borough a median home sells for $500,000. From this wealthy tax base, Haddonfield can raise $13,500 per student, four times higher than what can be collected in Gloucester City.
Camden County is not an anomaly. There are four times as many school districts as there are counties in the United States, over 250 of which contain more than 10 districts each. Almost two-thirds of our district borders nationwide create local revenue disparities of at least $1,000 per pupil across an invisible line between similar school systems in the same neighborhood.
This localism with regard to schools has been challenged legally many times, and state courts have repeatedly ruled that funding based on property taxes is unconstitutional. In all but a handful, they have ordered states to remedy the financial difference, but not to fix the borders that create the root inequity. So, every year, legislatures use state money to try to fill in the gaps between what low-wealth communities can raise from confined property tax areas and what they actually need to operate.
This approach has not done the job. The average predominantly nonwhite district in the United States starts with a local wealth deficit of almost $2,500 per student. State aid is so limited that on average, state legislatures are able to contribute only $260 toward closing the gap. As a result, predominantly nonwhite school districts receive a collective $23 billion less in school funding than their predominantly white counterparts, even though these districts serve the same number of students.
It is clear that this approach wasn’t working before the coronavirus hit, and the economic fallout from the pandemic will demonstrate exactly how flawed this system is. Sales, energy and income taxes are plummeting, and these are the receipts that states use to close the property tax gap across school district borders. Without intervention, we will soon watch education budgets for middle- and lower-income communities unravel.
But if we envision a new map of property taxation for schools — one in which district borders no longer define “local” for the purposes of education dollars, we can tap into funding that is already in the system and offset this challenge. Because larger borders encompass more communities, they can smooth out the major differences in neighborhood wealth that we see across the country.
If a typical U.S. county like Berrien County, Mich., were to combine all of its local taxes into one pool instead of independent collection among 15 different school districts, we could flatten the tax disparity between the highest local tax district at $25,000 per student, and the lowest-wealth district in the same county that generates just $750. According to analysis for an upcoming EdBuild report, sharing taxes across Berrien County would increase funding for 79 percent of all students (and 87 percent of low-income children). If we adopted this plan, the lowest income areas could withstand a state-funding reduction of upward of $3,332 in the next year without seeing an overall decline in available resources.
We know that these kinds of state cuts are coming but pooling the wealth that already exists in the community means that we can buffer the impact for the majority of children in Berrien County, and those nationwide. This solution isn’t unique to Michigan. State after state turn in positive results under this model. County pooling around Fayetteville, Ark., would deliver more money to 84 percent of low-income students. In the Kansas City suburbs, more than three-quarters of all students would benefit. In Johnstown, Pa., 86 percent of nonwhite students could gain access to the money that is already in their neighborhood. And back in Camden, 69 percent of low-income students would benefit from this change.
Reimagining school-funding geography would bring two distinct benefits. In the short term, we could find the money to buffer the impact of impending state cuts. On a longer-term basis, we could start to truly balance cross-border funding inequities and take on the racial and socioeconomic segregation that these borders enable and protect.
By expanding the definition of “local” just a bit, without finding any new state revenue or increasing any local tax rates, we can immediately get more money to a significant majority of all children. Under this kind of new nationwide map, 69 percent of all of the country’s children — and 73 percent of minority and 76 percent of low-income students — would get access to about $1,000 more in local property tax funding.
This money is not insignificant. It would enable distance learning by covering the cost of a Chromebook and home internet access for every student who stands to gain funding. Alternately, the average district could use this new money to hire five mental health counselors and five remedial education coaches for every school in the district. In essence, we can find the money that districts currently and urgently need to address the impact of the pandemic within our own education budgets. The money is already there.
The borders that determine the jurisdiction of local school taxes are not ordained by nature. We draw them, and we can change them whenever we decide. The coronavirus era is a good time for us to think more broadly about school district geographies — in terms of funding, but also how we define schools, taxes and community.
Some of us may see this financial proposal as a quiet first step toward income and race-based integration. Others will see it merely as an urgent financial fix. Either way, this proposal won’t lead to an immediate overhaul that satisfies either group fully, nor will it solve all of our education problems. There are so many challenges to overcome to achieve an equally accessible future for all of our children. But if we take the first step of broadening the definition of local in order to pool money more equitably, we may be able to look back at all the good that came from that redefinition — and see the enormous step forward that this was.