Courage And Cooperation Needed To Fund Schools From Income Tax

Posted: February 05, 2000

John Street has a remarkable opportunity to reinvent public education - not just in Philadelphia but in all of Pennsylvania. A chance to bring the city and the suburbs together on an issue that should unite rather than divide them.

Delaware County Council President Wallace A. Nunn wants to make the income tax and not the property tax the major funder for public schools. Nunn, an avowed conservative, has the backing of much of Delaware County's powerful Republican establishment.

If Mayor Street, a Democrat, were to team with Republican suburban county government chairman Nunn, the two might form the nucleus for a movement to have the state take primary responsibility for funding public schools - saving not only the city but the suburbs as well.

Conventional wisdom has it that suburban office-holders want to keep paying the tab for public schools with property taxes. That way, they can maintain the advantage of better schools through higher local taxes. For some politicians, that attitude may still hold sway. Such people apparently see the high property taxes as a way to fence off their communities.

Close-in communities such as Upper Darby are becoming Philadelphia in miniature, with parents moving out to find better schools. Newer residents have fewer resources, and the tax base shrinks. Equalizing the spending would give poorer districts the money needed to offer better schools irrespective of real estate values.

The population cycle of suburbs is starting to look more and more like the cycle of the cities. Ratables decline as demands for services increase. The most affluent flee first, leaving a larger burden for those with less valuable properties - driving property values down and demand for services up.

Those with fixed incomes are driven out because they simply cannot afford the property taxes, and the cycle continues to spiral downward. Some suburban office-holders see high property taxes as a fence against keeping low-income families from moving in. Good schools, they reason, will attract middle-and higher-income residents - interested in keeping the schools strong.

But Philadelphia's suburbs are no longer immune from the cycle of decay. Suburban communities are now subject to the same cycle of failing revenues and rising requirements for services - not just schools alone.

Linking school funding to the state income tax would equalize spending, giving the poorer districts the same money to spend as wealthier ones. Poorer children hardly deserve less of an education because they are poor. Why shouldn't we equalize the burden of public education by having all the citizens pay their part, renters as well as homeowners?

That's what's fair. Besides, an ill-educated or uneducated population serves us all badly. Even more pressing, the bulk of the cost of education is growing too quickly to be borne by individual homeowners alone. Some suburban homeowners can no longer afford to stay in their own homes because the taxes are simply more than they can afford.

Making the state income tax the major method of supporting public schools makes sense for all of Pennsylvania not just Philadelphia. The change well could attract the support of parents, homeowners without children and seniors. But Street and Nunn still must get together to make it work. That's because there are still many suburban legislators who want to keep the fences up, even if it means that their schools too will inevitably bottom out.

If Street and Nunn stand together, they might encourage or even shame some of their party members into ending the 20th-century concept of unequal education based on local property taxes. I take Street at his word, that education is his number one priority. I also believe that Nunn's announcement of his commitment to state-based funding for public schools took some political courage. With both men acting in the interest of all of the people and not segments of their respective constituencies, a powerful alliance could bridge the borders between city and suburbs.

No charter program, no choice or voucher program can improve basic education without adequate funding. Fewer and fewer suburbs can now afford the price all by themselves. Feed the starving public schools first and then let's see if alternate forms of public education are even necessary.

Mark Forrest is an adjunct member of the communications faculty at the Pennsylvania State University Delaware County Campus and writes frequently for the Inquirer Commentary Page.

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