Property Tax Relief Should Drive School Reform

Published June 28, 1994

Assembly Speaker Walter Kunicki and his legislative colleagues are reaping praise these days for what some have portrayed as a bold stroke of innovative policy making. More accurately, however, their proposal to take the schools off the property tax is little more than special interest group politics as usual.

Shifting school funding off the property tax has been a primary goal of the teachers’ union for years. But the Wisconsin Education Association Council (WEAC) is not advocating tax relief when it wrings its hands over property taxes. What WEAC and its legislative/agency allies really want is more money. Taxpayers are being baited with property tax relief in order to be switched into higher income and sales taxes.

The task for real statesmen is two-fold: to foil the plot, and then to capitalize on the risk the plotters have taken in advancing their fraudulent proposal. The plot can be foiled simply by exposing it to the light. Legislators who claim to be acting in the public interest, when they are actually and transparently doing the bidding of a special interest group, should be publicly exposed.

To capitalize on WEAC’s grab for more money, the opponents of higher taxes should insist that property tax reductions be offset by spending cuts. Such a proposal is clearly feasible.

At $6,000 per student, an average 25-student public school class costs Wisconsin taxpayers $150,000. On the average, the classroom teacher gets pay and benefits of about $50,000 for nine months of work. Lots of private schools do a superior job for only $2,000 to $2,500 per student, or $50,000 to $62,500 per class. Obviously, there is ample room for the public schools to cut their spending without reducing education services.

On average, the property tax picks up $78,000, or 52 percent, of the cost of an average public school class. Without the property tax, there would still be $72,000 per class, enough to continue teacher pay at current levels (if this is thought to be necessary) and still leave $22,000 for supplies, books, and overhead. Public school spending would still exceed private school spending by 20 percent or more. The discussions in Madison so far appear to have settled on a compromise property tax reduction of about $1 billion, one-third of the schools’ current draw. In terms of our hypothetical class, that reduction would leave $74,000 above the cost of the teacher, which would appear to be ample for quality education.

Where would the schools have to cut their spending? They would have to forego the platoons of non- teaching professionals who are administering, coordinating, counselling, facilitating, analyzing, advising, and in general doing a lot of things that children do not need, that parents do not want, that cost a fortune, and that obstruct the delivery of solid educations. Between 1970 and 1990, while national school enrollments rose 11 percent, central administrators increased their numbers by 140 percent, and support staff went up by 250 percent.

In short, if property taxes are cut and not replaced by income or sales taxes, the schools will mostly have to stop spending money that they should not have been spending in the first place. No one could pretend that it will be easy, painless, or non-controversial to bring education back to roots consistent with American traditions and educational excellence. Wisconsin’s legislature owes us the effort, however, and the present debate over property tax relief is an excellent opportunity to deliver it.

Kirby Brant is Wisconsin president of The Heartland Institute.