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Monday, November 14, 2005

Texas: Don't Pull a New Jersey

I have a word of advice for my friends in Texas: Don't follow New Jersey.

Texas, in case you didn't know, is having a devil of a time fixing it's two main political issues (that are actually one): property tax and school financing. It's the same problem that New Jersey faced in the 1970s - a problem that was supposed to be solved through the implementation of an income tax system to offset the punative property tax rates caused (partially) by school financing.

New Jersey's income tax, basically, goes right through the state coffers without slowing down. It is effectively a balancing tax - taking money from rich areas and redistributing it to poorer areas.

Of course, the whole problem could have been solved by implementing a state-wide school tax that funded every school in some equitable fashion - but that would destroy "local control", which is the legendary bugaboo of good government. It looks like enough people in New Jersey are finally fed up enough to start actually thinking about what a good tax system would look like.

Wrightwing provides this assessment:

Local school boards, who are the cause of about three quarters of the average property tax bill, have no reason to reduce spending, since they can just claim everything is for the children, and people shut up and get in line. The idea that much of that spending is really for the benefit of the teachers union is studiously ignored.


I liked pretty much everything right up until he claims it's all for the teachers union. I don't actually have any stats on that, but I'm going to say that the majority of costs are due to excessive administration. For example, Hudson County could easily run a single county-wide unified district. That would get rid of 13 independent school boards, 13 superintendents, and uncounted supplimentary staff. That's several million dollars per year that could go into providing more teachers, better infrastructure, and maybe even a few new schools.

Wrightwing does have some idea worth discussion - and I hope that we can do so. It only makes sense that if you are going to assess the value of a building that you should try to do as adequate and fair a job of it as possible. I'm not sure exactly how workable that would be, and to his credit, Wrightwing says as much. Still, if we are going to try and improve things, then we should start with an idea of what a fair system would look like.

Cinnaman is worried about how reforming the tax system would effect those who have worked their way up from the lower reaches. I could dismiss this as right-wing garbage, but I won't because it isn't. We simply cannot act like the wealthy will simply suffer the "outrageous slings and arrows" of a system designed with their money in mind.

But neither should we forget those on the bottom of the scale. Remember, the Abbott system was created because New Jersey had proven itself unable to provide an education system that was adequately funded for every student. As Cinnaman rightly points out, though, we can't act like more money is the solution. We have to actually critically examine our entire system, from top to bottom.

I hope to get the ball rolling on that idea, and I hope that both Wrightwing and Cinnaman will play along and help me bounce a few ideas back and forth. After all, it is all too easy to see the beam in someone else's eye and look past the mote in your own. Perhaps the three of us can help pick specks out of each other's eyes until we can all see clearly.

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