Is It Fair to Get a Significant Part of Our Funding for Schools from Property Taxes?

School Classroom.

For decades a battle has been raging over school funding:

Is it fair to use property taxes as a significant source of funding for schools?  

Does this create unfair and disparate conditions between school districts that are in high property value areas and those in lower property values areas?

The Supreme Court weighed in on this issue in the San Antonio School District v. Rodriguez (1973) case.

In this case the court had to determine if Texas’ system of school funding left some people at a disadvantage because they lived in areas where there were lower property values and less revenue from taxes.

As it stands right now:

- The Federal government contributes about 8.5% toward education funding, on average;

- Local sources (like taxes on properties, etc.) generate about 45% (on average) of elementary and post-secondary school funding and

- The rest, about 46%, is provided by state governments.

Thus, as you can see, local taxes can play a significant role in school funding for any given area, where local taxes are used.

In the San Antonio v. Rodriguez case the Supreme Court ruled that Texas’s system for financing school districts did not violate the Constitution and, therefore, states were allowed to use a combination of state funds and federal and local funds (including property taxes) in their efforts to fund school districts within their boundaries.

San Antonio School District v. Rodriguez, 411 U.S. 1 (1973)

The court, in its opinion, ruled that:

“This suit attacking the Texas system of financing public education was initiated by Mexican-American parents whose children attend the elementary and secondary schools in the Edgewood Independent School District, an urban school district in San Antonio, Texas. They brought a class action on behalf of schoolchildren throughout the State who are members of minority groups or who are poor and reside in school districts having a low property tax base.”

“We must decide, first, whether the Texas system of financing public education operates to the disadvantage of some suspect class or impinges upon a fundamental right explicitly or implicitly protected by the Constitution, thereby requiring strict judicial scrutiny. If not, the Texas scheme must still be examined to determine whether it rationally furthers some legitimate, articulated state purpose and therefore does not constitute an invidious discrimination in violation of the Equal Protection Clause of the Fourteenth Amendment.”

The court noted the extreme importance of education to society and affirmed that it was not, in any way, stepping away from its Brown v. Board of Education decision, but concluded that:

“Education, of course, is not among the rights afforded explicit protection under our Federal Constitution. Nor do we find any basis for saying it is implicitly so protected. As we have said, the undisputed importance of education will not alone cause this Court to depart from the usual standard for reviewing a State's social and economic legislation.”

The Court held that Texas’ school funding plan furthered “a legitimate state purpose” and met the appropriate standard under the Equal Protection Clause of the Constitution.

Justice Stewart further concurred with the ruling by writing:

“The method of financing public schools in Texas, as in almost every other State, has resulted in a system of public education that can fairly be described as chaotic and unjust. It does not follow, however, and I cannot find, that this system violates the Constitution of the United States.”

Justices Lewis F. Powell, Warren E. Burger, Potter Stewart, Harry Blackmun and William Rehnquist concurred with respect to the ruling, while Justices William Brennan, Byron White, William Douglas and Thurgood Marshall dissented.

This 5 - 4 decision stands today as the Supreme Court’s major ruling on this issue and current challenges to the way in which schools are funded are being challenged largely at the state level.

Thurgood Marshall, as we have noted, dissented from the opinion of the Court, he wrote:

The Supreme Court.

“The Court today decides, in effect, that a State may constitutionally vary the quality of education which it offers its children in accordance with the amount of taxable wealth located in the school districts within which they reside. The majority's decision represents an abrupt departure from the mainstream of recent state and federal court decisions concerning the unconstitutionality of state educational financing schemes dependent upon taxable local wealth. More unfortunately, though, the majority's holding can only be seen as a retreat from our historic commitment to equality of educational opportunity and as unsupportable acquiescence in a system which deprives children in their earliest years of the chance to reach their full potential as citizens.

“I, for one, am unsatisfied with the hope of an ultimate "political" solution sometime in the indefinite future while, in the meantime, countless children unjustifiably receive inferior educations that "may affect their hearts and minds in a way unlikely ever to be undone...." 

Copyright 2017, Red and Black Ink, LLC.

References:

Turner, Cory. Why America’s Schools Have Funding Problem.  NPR, April 18, 2016.

U.S. Census Bureau, Public Education Finances: 2014, G14-ASPEF. U.S. Government Printing Office. Washington, DC, June 2016.    Accessed May 2017, https://www.census.gov/content/dam/Census/library/publications/2016/econ/g14-aspef.pdf

U.S. Supreme Court, San Antonio School District v. Rodriguez 411 U.S. 1 (1973).

Danita Smith