Commentary & Opinion
12:29 pm
Mon May 19, 2014

Karen Magee: Tax Cap Undermines Democratic Ideals

School budget voting is supposed to remind us of our nation’s democratic ideals.

You know: Community members vote each May on their local school budgets and determine which candidates are best suited to serve on local school boards. 

Budget votes are also way for communities to voice confidence in how their local schools are being run.  And, thankfully, over the past few years, voters have resoundingly supported that direction.  The 95 percent or higher school budget “pass rate” in recent years is a ringing endorsement of the great job that teachers, paraprofessionals, nurses and other professionals in our public schools are doing on behalf of New York’s kids. 

And, yet, as a teacher and a mom and a union president, I am very worried.

The state’s property tax cap is making a mockery of our democratic ideals and robbing communities of their local decision-making power.  Even worse, it is widening the gap between what affluent communities spend to support their local schools, and what poorer communities can spend.  Under the tax cap, those students who need the most… seem to get the least.

It’s insane.  Think about it:

The tax cap unfairly limits how much local communities can spend educating their own children.  If a community wants to invest more to expand Advanced Placement classes; or art or music; or reduce class sizes — or avoid devastating cuts — they should be able to vote in a democratic way to do so, right?   Yet, they can’t because of this arbitrary tax cap imposed by Albany.  There is no question the tax cap undemocratically strips away local control of schools.

And then, if a community really wants to press forward and pierce the arbitrary cap, it needs a supermajority of more than 60 percent to do so.

So much for the democratic principle of one-person, one-vote.

The tax cap is unfairly tilted to give more weight to the vote of someone who opposes school spending than to someone who supports investing in our children’s education.  That’s wrong.

And, most everyone agrees that the way New York funds public education is grossly inequitable.  Yet, the tax cap widens the gap between rich and poor.  Wealthier districts can raise far more than poorer districts to fund schools even if they increase the tax rate by the same amount.  For example, Elmira’s city schools boosted taxes by 2.8 percent to raise an additional $124 per student.  On Long Island, Great Neck schools adopted almost the same tax increase — and raised $713 per student, nearly 600 percent more.

Under the tax cap, Elmira — which has more students living in poverty than Great Neck and lower student achievement — would never be able to raise enough money locally to provide the rich educational program its students need.  In fact, the tax cap makes funding inequality worse — much worse.

NYSUT is fighting the tax cap in the courts.  It’s not because we want property taxes to go up, but because there are better ways to both control local taxes and support what our students need in order to succeed.  Until we prevail, there’s still a way to ensure that our kids have every opportunity to get a great public school education.  I strongly encourage you to support your local schools on Tuesday, May 20.

Karen Magee is president of the 600,000-member New York State United Teachers.

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