June 13, 2024

Joanna LeFebvre: States Should Reverse Course on Defunding Public Education Through Private School Vouchers and Property Tax Cuts

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Joanna LeFebvre is a researcher for the Center on Budget and Policy Priorities, and she suggests that states should stop defunding public education.

Property tax cuts reduce funding for public education at its source. Revenue from local property taxes accounted for over 36 percent of public education funding in the 2020-2021 school year, the most recent year for which national data are available. States have a long history of weaponizing this policy design, using their property tax codes to limit education funding for Black and brown students. For example, California’s infamous 1978 Proposition 13, which limited property taxes to 1 percent of a home’s purchase price, passed with primary support from white property owners amid a campaign of thinly veiled racism and xenophobia about paying for “other” people’s children to go to school.

K-12 vouchers also siphon funding away from public schools. Voucher programs can take many forms, but all use public dollars to subsidize private school tuition. Some voucher programs defund public education directly by siphoning off funding that otherwise would have gone to public schools. Others do so indirectly by reducing revenue available for all public services, including education.

Both are problematic– but if they are combined, it makes matters worse.

A trend has emerged of states proposing or enacting school voucher programs while simultaneously cutting, limiting, or proposing to eliminate property taxes. Florida, Texas, and Idaho are leading examples of this trend.

  • Florida: This year, a Republican representative introduced a bill to study eliminating Florida’s property tax system. Property taxes generated $14 billion in the 2020-2021 school year (the most recent for which data are available), equivalent to almost 40 percent of Florida’s K-12 education funding. Meanwhile, the legislature passed a budget in early March that includes about $4 billion for private school vouchers, a significant portion of the $29 billion appropriated for K-12 education.
  • Texas: Last year, Governor Greg Abbott called two special legislative sessions and spent seven months lobbying lawmakers to pass a school voucher system without success. The voucher proposal would have cost Texas school districts up to $2.28 billion. However, the legislature approved over $18 billion worth of property tax cuts, with 66 percent of benefits accruing to families making more than $100,000, putting pressure on future education budgets.
  • Idaho: Last year, Idaho’s legislature passed property tax cuts totaling $355 million, equivalent to over half of property tax revenue for schools. Although some of this funding was replaced with general fund revenue to repair the state’s abysmal school facilities, the overall reduction in revenue jeopardizes the state’s long-term ability to fund education. Meanwhile, this year, the legislature tried and failed to pass a school voucher bill that would have cost the state over $170 million.

Other states where both school vouchers and property tax cuts are being considered this year include AlabamaColoradoGeorgiaIllinoisIndianaKansasKentuckyLouisianaMichiganMissouriNebraskaOhioOregonSouth DakotaTennessee, and Wyoming.

Read the full analysis here. 

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