Courts Spur Tax Revolts, Not Better Schools

Published May 1, 1998

New Hampshire legislators are struggling to devise a response to last December’s ruling from their Supreme Court, which found that the state’s current method of funding public schools with local property taxes is unconstitutional and that the state has the responsibility for defining and funding the provision of “a constitutionally adequate public education.”

In an April 13 statement issued by Granite State Taxpayers, a New Hampshire taxpayers coalition, Dartmouth College economics professor William A. Fischel points out that past court rulings on the equalization of school funding have failed to improve public education:

  • SAT scores are lower in states with more centralized funding;
  • The gap between high- and low-scoring districts has not been closed by fiscal equalization;
  • Schools become less efficiently managed as local control of tax bases is supplanted by the state;
  • State teachers unions become more powerful with centralized financing, which raises costs and reduces school quality;
  • The rise in state taxes for schools is offset by a decline in local support, and overall support for schools does not necessarily grow;
  • California and other states whose courts imposed centralized funding have reduced fiscal support for education and left poorer districts worse off.

Fischel argues that it was California’s 1970 equalization lawsuit and the resulting loss of local control that prompted the passage of Proposition 13. After Sacramento equalized spending, angry citizens mounted a tax revolt.

A similar tax revolt may be festering in Vermont after its Supreme Court last year ruled unconstitutional the state’s 200-year-old property tax system. “Everyone knows this isn’t about education,” Rutland mayor Jeffrey Wennberg told Wall Street Journal editor Amity Shlaes, calling equalization supporters “pathological redistributionists.”

“You people aren’t Democrats,” wrote author John Irving to his state lawmaker after the state slashed his local school’s budget. “I was a Democrat,” he added. “You’re Marxists!”