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EDUCATION FUNDING

DON'T FORGET THE SCHOOLS

For decades, many in New Jersey have recognized that the state’s combination of startlingly disparate local property tax capacity and unduly heavy reliance on property tax revenues was a prescription for disaster. Indeed, the case of Robinson v. Cahill, the predecessor to Abbott v. Burke, was brought to redress taxpayer and student inequalities that resulted from New Jersey’s flawed system for funding the public schools. The judicial response to these cases, and especially Abbott, has been to mandate dramatically increased state funding of poor school districts without requiring that the flawed system for raising education funds, heavily dependent on property tax revenues for most other districts, be reformed.

Despite authority to deal with this problem directly, the legislature has not done so. Instead, in 2004 it created a Property Tax Convention Task Force to make recommendations regarding a constitutional convention to address tax reform. The Task Force issued its report in December 2004, in which it indeed recommended such a convention. Although it recommended that the convention be “strictly limited” to considering reform of the state’s current system of revenue-raising, rather than revenue-spending, some task force members and some prominent Republican legislators have argued that a constitutional convention should deal not only with reforming property taxes on the revenue-raising side, but also with the way in which state as well as local revenues are spent. This, in turn, caused some to express concern that the convention might be used as a vehicle to roll back education reforms instituted pursuant to the judicial mandate of Abbott v. Burke.

Such sharply divergent views about the role of a constitutional convention reflect just how complex and controversial the underlying issues are. That divergence in views also might impede any serious effort to address property tax reform in New Jersey’s and make it less likely that needed reform will occur, whether through a constitutional convention or otherwise.

A constitutional convention should not be a vehicle to reverse the state’s commitment to its urban public school students. Yet, it is clear that many other school districts in New Jersey -- rural, urban and suburban -- are struggling to raise the resources necessary to provide their students with a “thorough and efficient” education and to do so in an equitable and politically viable manner. It is equally clear that the state’s heavy reliance on local property tax revenues and starkly disparate property wealth is an impediment. In that sense, a meaningful discussion of property tax reform can only occur in the context of what we know to be a suspect school funding and state aid system.

IELP is helping to navigate these difficult waters with Don't Forget the Schools. With this project, IELP will provide policymakers and the public with an objective analysis of the complex legal, fiscal, educational and social policy questions, and an informed, objective basis for serious deliberation warranted by the undeniable importance of this issue. Through objective, multidisciplinary research and analysis as well as high-level discussion among experts in the fields of school finance, education reform and state taxation, the Institute will examine New Jersey’s system of school finance and its property tax ramifications, compare the New Jersey’s system with those employed by states with ambitious education reform programs, such as Kentucky, and states that have devoted considerable attention to property tax reform, such as California and Michigan; and, based on this examination and comparison, recommend measures that could provide property tax relief, or at least a more equitable tax burden, while maintaining the state’s historic effort to improve education for its neediest students. Then, it will use this research to promote informed public discussion of the issues.

Background Paper. The project began with an invitational meeting June 3-4, 2005, where experts from New Jersey and across the country discussed the legal, fiscal and policy issues and recommended specific areas of inquiry. IELP distributed a background paper for the meeting, What We Know, and What We Need to Know, About Education Funding and Taxes.

Study and Report. A systematic study of the issues is currently underway, and a series of reports covering various aspects of the issue is being prepared. The first and second titles in the series, which discuss fiscal and budget issues and legal issues related to tax reform, are now available at the links below. To request print copies of either report, please e-mail the Institute at ielp@andromeda.rutgers.edu.

Don't Forget the Schools: Fiscal, Budget and Policy Considerations for Tax Reform

Don't Forget the Schools: Legal Considerations for Tax Reform

TOWARD A RATIONAL STATE POLICY ON EDUCATION FUNDING AND ACCOUNTABILITY

An Open Letter from Paul Tractenberg to the NJDOE-Appointed Experts (1/5/2007)

Estimated Financial Impact of the "Freeze" of State Aid on New Jersey School Districts, 2002-03 to 2005-06, by Dr. Ernest C. Reock, Jr. (1/12/2007)

Testimony by Paul Tractenberg to the New Jersey Assembly Education Committee (1/22/2007)