Chasing After School Equity

School funding is a hot issue in every state, but it's hotter in some states than others.

Two New England states are among the places where the school-funding debate is downright torrid. New Hampshire and Vermont are under state supreme court orders, both issued in 1997, to bring greater equity to taxation systems that allowed wealthy communities to spend much more on schools than poorer ones.

Vermont came up with Act 60, a law that redistributes property tax revenue from towns with rich property bases (in Vermont, that means a big ski area nearby) to less well-off towns. It satisfied the court. But now the legislature is trying to revise Act 60's reliance on a "sharing pool" because wealthier towns don't like the drain on educational resources.

New Hampshire has yet to settle on a plan that satisfies its courts. The legislature tried versions of a statewide property tax, all of which left too much tax inequity in place, according to the various judges. Another plan would get at the root problem by having the state try to bring one standard of property valuation in order to be able to tax property equally. The governor just proposed a 2.5 percent state sales tax (a brave proposal in tax-averse New Hampshire) along with a reduced statewide property tax.

The state's high court, meanwhile, may be getting itchy to see its mandate for an "adequate, state-funded education" based on "reasonable and proportional taxation" fulfilled.

But judges should be patient. Texas took nearly a decade to settle on a plan to meet its court-ordered funding-equity requirement. Now, five years after that plan was put in place (dubbed by critics "Robin Hood" because it, too, moves money from richer communities to poorer ones), it faces a legal challenge from a collection of wealthy school districts.

The reasons for contention in these states - and more than 20 others that are trying to equalize education spending - are clear. The school funding dilemma hits close to home. It involves how much money families should pay for schools, how to ensure a better future for children, and, not least, how to maintain the necessary American tradition of local control of schools.

That tradition is under fire from many directions today - not just from funding mandates, but also from the campaign to establish more uniform academic standards. Beneath the turmoil lie fundamental questions: What is an adequate education? Who should pay for it? And who calls the shots?

Different states and communities find different answers - sometimes by choice, sometimes out of necessity because of meager resources. Some Vermont towns are opting out of state restraints by forming education foundations or trust funds to underwrite schools. That underscores local initiative, but leaves poor towns still trying to catch up.

Individual states will lose a great deal in innovation and civic energy if they push too hard or too fast for all-encompassing answers to questions about educational adequacy and funding.

Local people, vitally interested in local schools, must be allowed a major role in arriving at answers that work for them and their children.

(c) Copyright 2001. The Christian Science Publishing Society

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