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ISO: Married White Eduwonk Seeks National Commission To Tackle Current Property Tax Policies And Propose Reforms. Must be fit and active, nationally recognizable, and enjoy cooking, in particular a witch’s brew that will offend the political right and left. Appreciation of other cultures also a big plus.

The recent report from the President’s tax commission is getting a lot of attention and sparking some interesting discussion (for instance this NY Times essay by Eduardo Porter about homeownership which interestingly flirts with one of the causes of today’s school segregation problem) and surely the tax code can use some work on both the fairness and simplicity fronts.

However, there is another tax issue that just does not get the attention it should: localized property taxes as a key source of funding for schools. Eduwonk is not opposed to property taxes per se, but when they’re drawn from localized areas to fund schools in those communities they do introduce obvious disequities (pdf) into school funding.

Basically, though school funding debates – especially at the national level- focus on spending per-pupil, when thinking about a community’s ability to pay for adequate schools it is the assessed value per-pupil that matters (this is the amount of taxable property meaning less abatements, less than 100 percent assessments, etc…divided by the number of students in the community). In a community with more property wealth, say an affluent suburb or town with thriving businesses there is more property value per student to assess to finance schools and it is consequently easier for these communities to raise money for schools. Conversely, in communities with a lot of agriculture, few businesses, major property tax abatements, or mostly lower-end housing there is much less property value to asses.

For example, assuming a hypothetical tax rate of 1 percent, in community A with an assessed value per-pupil of $500,000 and community B with an assessed value per-pupil of $100,000 community A will raise $5000 per student and community B $1000. In other words community B will end up working a lot harder to raise the same revenue as community A. In theory most states will make up for these differences though state foundational programs but that’s often not the case in practice. Now what’s really perverse here is that all else equal, communities with a lot of low-income students actually need more resources to deliver a top-flight educational program so in essence they’re doubly penalized.

The solutions here are not easy politically or substantively, for instance statewide property to spread the load more evenly or other taxes and revenue schemes so states kick-in a greater share of school funding. And, while such policies do not have to explicitly penalize high-spending school districts there is no escaping their redistributionist nature.

Yet both sides of the political spectrum have something to gain by tackling this problem and there is something of a grand bargain out there. Conservative choice schemes (and centrist charter school schemes) will never be serious solutions as long as school finance remains a district by district affair. But, given the country’s political contours it’s hard to envision a political solution to these problems that doesn’t give at least the center-right enough reform to put together durable state-level coalitions a reality the left must acknowledge. Resources will come with reform. Besides, it’s hard to envision serious and sustainable educational improvement that does not involve attention to how we finance schools, so everyone has a stake.

There are both commonalities and differences across states meaning that a singular solution from such a commission would have limited utility. But that’s an advantage not a road block because clarion calls and guiding principals with powerful endorsements, not unlike what The Teaching Commission (pdf) did, rather than a detailed policy proposal is what these sorts of commissions do best. And, although litigation will still precipitate most activity on finance reform, having good ideas for remedies out there will help states when they have to act and increase public awareness of this issue.

But, since there could be a meeting of the minds such a commission seems like a great way for left-leaning foundations like Ford, Carnegie (big players in the original school finance reform efforts), and MacArthur along with centrist foundations like Gates, Broad, and Joyce, and pro-voucher foundations like the right-leaning Bradley and the Walton Family Foundation to all support an independent commission with a broad mandate: School Finance for the 21st Century. Essentially, get smart people with a variety of perspectives from inside and outside education together and then let them run. For national stature and expertise have it co-chaired by a smart, serious, middle-of-the-road team like Paul O’Neill and Jim Guthrie.

Worth mentioning, though the choice stuff will send chills down many spines, this also seems like a good way for the left to get ahead of this emerging issue (more here) and help proactively shape remedies rather than be reactionary and ensure they address issues like segregation.

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