EDITOR’S NOTE: This article appeared in the September 8, 1972, issue of National Review.
It is fast becoming an article of political faith that financing America’s public schools by way of the local property tax is a shame and a civic scandal.
Last week’s Convention of the Republican Party contributed its mite to this conception, offering numerous references to the supposed need for “ending excessive reliance on property taxes” and the support of education. The platform makes pointed mention of this alleged necessity, and Michigan Governor William Milliken gave it special stress in the litany of clichés inflicted upon the delegates. In this as in other things, the GOP was obviously striving to align itself with currently fashionable liberal opinion.
The demand that school finances be transferred away from local school districts to the state and/or Federal Government has been a long-time favorite of the educationist lobbies. These forces of late have received a powerful impetus from a series of court rulings which suggest that dependence on the property tax for school finance is a deprivation of constitutional rights under the Fourteenth Amendment. The Supreme Court of California, in Serrano v. Priest smiled on the argument that variations of propertied wealth from one school district to the next deprive schoolchildren and their parents of equal protection before the law.
The indicated conclusion is that higher levels of government must assume an increasing proportion of school finances to level out discrepancies among the districts–a thesis which veterans of legislative battles in the states will recognize on sight. Increased state spending for the purpose of “property tax relief” is the constant refrain of the spending-taxing lobbies who want to escape the limitations imposed by property taxes and the control of the local school boards. Invariably, the new state levies and augmented spending are real, but the property tax relief is illusory.
With the argument transferred to the federal constitutional level, the fallacies are compounded. If it is true, for example, that variations in wealth among local school districts imply “unequal protection of the laws” under the U.S. Constitution, then movement toward greater state finance and equalization formulas (which, by the way, are quite widespread as it is) provides no intelligible answer. For there are immense variations in wealth among the states as well–California, say, being considerably more affluent than Mississippi. The logic of Serrano, therefore, is that we must have not state but federal financing to achieve the equalization of which we supposedly stand in need.
And if that be true of schools, why not for every other government function as well? Is it equal protection of the laws for the citizens of Greenwich, Conn. or Palm Beach, Fla. to have more elegant streets than the residents of Gnawbone, Ind.? Why is this any less a violation of the Fourteenth Amendment than variations in the tax base for financing schools? If inequalities of taxable wealth backing up a government service are construed as denying equality before the law, then there is no solution but to have every government service whatever financed out of Washington. What is required is a total leveling of differences in wealth through the instrument of an egalitarian Federal Government.
Indeed, demands for equal financing of sewers, streets and garbage collection would make more sense than proposals for equal financing of the schools, since some plausible connection may be inferred between the amount of money expended, e.g., for roads, and the quality of service resulting to the taxpayer. There is no such correlation discernible in the matter of schools. To the extent that there is any demonstrable connection between expenditure and educational product, it appears to be the reverse of that suggested by Serrano. It can be argued, in fact, that where educational outlays are high, the quality of education imparted is proportionally low.
This negative ratio is clearly shown by Roger Freeman of the Hoover Institute in a recent address reprinted in the University Bookman. Freeman reveals from a variety of sources that dollar disbursements have little or nothing to do with quality education. His principal case in point is the school system of New York City, where average per pupil expenditures are higher than anywhere else in the nation. In the past decade, educational spending in New York has quadrupled–from $540 million in 1960 to $2.02 billion in 1972–although there was only a small increase in pupil enrollment. In this same span, however, the educational achievement of New York’s schools has steadily declined.
Freeman notes that in 1965 some 54% of New York City pupils were reading below grade level; by 1972, this proportion had grown to 66.2%. He offers similar evidence from an internal comparison of different New York City schools. In 1967-68 there were thirty such schools where average per pupil expenditures exceeded $1,100 and 101 where expenditures were less than six hundred dollars. Matching up these two sets of schools, Freeman observes that reading skills of the students in the more expensive schools averaged below grade level, while reading skills in the less expensive schools averaged above grade level. Just the reverse, in sum, of the argument behind Serrano.
On that evidence, the push for equalization won’t do a thing to protect constitutional rights or improve education, but it may do a great deal to open the floodgates for further spending and centralize control of the nation’s public schools.