Kids Aren't Created Equal In Tax Base

RICHARD REEVES

December 12, 1991|By RICHARD REEVES

Sag Harbor, N.Y. -- The numbers keep changing for the worse, but it appears that state aid to the public schools in this village of 3,000 people will be reduced by 37 percent next year.

That is a pretty good hit, almost 4 percent of the overall village school budget, which is financed mainly by local property taxes, but it is small compared with the impact of aid cuts on poorer Long Island districts.

In Commac, for instance, 30 miles ''up island,'' the local way of saying toward New York City, state aid cuts will amount to more than 11 percent of the overall school budget.

The reason for the difference is that although Sag Harbor is not a particularly rich town, especially when compared with its glamorous neighbors, Southampton and East Hampton, village property is still very expensive.

The prices are driven up by ''summer people'' like us. Whether you live here full time or not, you are a summer person if you make your money in New York. The per-pupil property value in Sag Harbor is about $1.7 million, compared with $275,060 in Commac.

It is said that American public education has failed. It was said to me most recently by a correspondent for Japanese television, who said in an aside during an interview that the big problem for Sony and other Japanese companies manufacturing in the United States is that it takes so long to train American workers to read and write well enough to do their jobs.

This was said without malice, but the words themselves sounded similar to what the British said in India.

But, I would argue, it is not American education that has failed; it is the American system of funding public education. Local funding of education is what no longer works.

Education as a function of property taxes has failed as the property wealth of villages, towns and cities has become so unequal. The nation has become both richer and poorer at the same time -- as in, the rich get richer and the poor get poorer.

The wealth gap on Long Island is far wider than the 100 miles from Sag Harbor to Manhattan. The per-pupil property value ranges from $5,210,504 in Quogue, near here, to $78,653 in the town of Roosevelt.

That gap is critical because in America, schools are financed locally and local revenues are generally dependent on property taxes. Which means, more or less, that not all children are created equal in the United States: A child born in Quogue has about 70 times as much chance of getting a good education as a child born the same day 60 miles away in Roosevelt.

Actually, the odds against the Roosevelt kid are even greater, if you believe the report released last week by the Carnegie Foundation for the Advancement of Teaching. The foundation surveyed 7,000 kindergarten teachers across the country and concluded that more than one-third of American children enter kindergarten unprepared to learn because of health problems and a total lack of mental stimulation during the first five years of their lives, inert years often spent in front of the television set.

It is hard to believe that the Carnegie report was written in the richest country in the world:

''Children are burdened by poor health care, inattentive or over-worked parents, scarce child-care and preschool opportunities, unsafe neighborhoods, mindless television programming and isolation from adults. Half a million children are malnourished, 1.5 million children under 6 years old have no health insurance and one-quarter of pregnant women have no prenatal health care, placing their children at risk even before they are born.''

Being part of a rich country does not mean much if you live in a poor part of it and the financing of education is based on local wealth. The child born in Roosevelt is at the end of the tax and frustration chain; he or she is the last domino in the chain reaction of the Reagan Revolution.

The federal government, financed by income taxes, cuts aid to the states, which are often financed by sales taxes, so the states cut aid to counties and then to the towns, dependent on property taxes, and the towns cut their major expense, the local school budget. Tough luck, kid; have a nice life!

Finally, there is this: Local school budgets are usually the only chance most Americans have to vote directly against government spending. Washington raises income taxes and xTC Social Security taxes, but what can you do about that? Albany pumps up the sales tax, and that is just tough luck.

But we vote on the school budget in Sag Harbor and a lot of other places. And we vote ''NO!'' swinging widely at President Bush, Congress, Gov. Mario Cuomo and the state legislature -- and decking some kid from Roosevelt for life.

The system stinks. School funding should be equalized nationally and paid for nationally.

If that is ''throwing money at problems,'' then I am for throwing money at problems until I see the people of Scarsdale or Chevy Chase or Santa Barbara decide to cut their school funding down to the level of Roosevelt, Long Island, or some hamlet in West Virginia.

Richard Reeves is a syndicated columnist.

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