What would happen if the property taxes from Bel Air paid for the schools in Watts?
Next month, my daughter begins first grade at our local public school. It’s a good school, especially for a big city. The Los Angeles Unified School District, like pretty much all school districts in the United States, gets a significant portion of its funding from property taxes. The district is financially strapped, and our neighborhood is mixed income, with multimillion-dollar hillside mansions interspersed with crumbling, cement-block apartment buildings. So the parents at our school who can afford to, pay for much of what was considered to be basic when I was growing up—things like the music program and the full-time nurse.
Our country’s school funding mechanism is a recipe for educational inequality, which perpetuates and broadens asset inequality. The wealthiest school districts, where parents are more likely to have good educations and to be able to afford to send their children to private school, get the best public schools, while the poorest parts of the country—whose residents need a good education the most—get stuck with least funded schools. This happens even within districts. In a big city like L.A., there are schools with no ball fields and classes being held in un-air-conditioned trailers. Meanwhile, a few miles away, children eat lunch outside under blue beach umbrellas. I’m not saying there’s a one-to-one correlation between how much money a school spends and how well its kids ultimately perform, but the link between poverty and poor educational outcomes in the United States is pretty clear.
But what if the school funding situation were reversed? Say there are 100 schools in a district. What if the wealthiest neighborhood funded the school in the poorest one, and vice versa. No. 2 would pay for no. 98, and no. 98 for no. 2, and so on. What would happen if property taxes from Bel Air paid for the schools in Watts?
The wealthier parents could still send their kids to private school, as many of them already do anyway, and their public school would still enjoy contributions from the parents, like those that pay for our school’s nurse. The change could be phased in such a way that the school wouldn’t suddenly crash or be unable to meet its prior obligations.
Meanwhile, the poorer district could hire its own nurse and music teacher. It wouldn’t need to depend upon volunteers from local churches to paint their hallways. Maybe it could even finance an after-school program like our school has, so kids could play outside or do homework in the afternoons instead of getting dropped off at low-quality day-care or watching TV until their parents finish work.
The incentive would be removed to buy into a wealthy neighborhood for its school; as a result, property values there would become more in line with the rest of the community and over time, enable less well-off families to also afford a home in that neighborhood. At the same time, middle-income families who can’t afford private school, but are willing to live in an edgy neighborhood for its well-funded school, would move in, bringing with them their strong emphasis on education, along with the money to invest in their home and their community—and thus raise property values in the poorer district. A leveling effect would develop, encouraging the intermingling of families from different socioeconomic backgrounds, while creating opportunity in neighborhoods where little had previously existed.
Sociologists have found that in the past couple of decades, Americans have become physically more isolated among people we think of as being like us—similar incomes, educational level, feelings about religion and politics. They say it’s contributed to a fractured culture and dyspeptic political climate, with little understanding between people who don’t share the same values or opinions.
The inverse funding of public schools could help reverse this trend. As school quality grows more equitable and property values even out across a city, it would create a positive feedback loop reinforcing the change. We’d be more likely to have neighbors unlike ourselves, and from knowledge comes understanding. Most importantly, we’d be giving back to the poorest segment of society the key element of the American Dream: the promise of a good education.
Paul Tullis has written for Columbia Journalism Review, L.A. Times Magazine, McSweeney's, New York, The New Yorker, NPR, Salon, Sierra, Wired, and elsewhere.