Can the Federal Government Create a Level Playing Field for K-12 School Funding?

Is it fair for one runner to have to run uphill, while others race around a flat track?

Compare an average rural or central city school in Virginia with a suburban school, and you're likely to see some glaring distinctions. The effect of disparate funding for athletic facilities may be more obvious than the funding differences for libraries, teacher's aides, school counselors, and advanced classes.

If quality is measured in by the dollars spent per student, then students living in "poorer" communities (those with lower real estate values) may get a "poorer" education. Advocates for increasing Federal funding for K-12 schools highlight the benefits of equal funding per student. Head Start and other programs target the lower-income communities, and richer communities (where more families have incomes above the povert line) receive less Federal support.

What will happen if Federal support for K-12 schools increases even more? That could shift the primary funding source for schools from local property taxes to national income taxes. If the funding was distributed to school systems by a formula based just on population, would it be "fair" for every school system to receive a fixed amount - say, $1,800 per student enrolled on September 15?

If vouchers are issued to individual students independent of their family income, then families might be able to afford the tuition charged by parochial/private schools. Public schools might receive less income.

If public schools had flexibility in their costs, then they could rapidly adjust to lower enrollments that might result from a voucher program. Fewer teachers could be hired, if fewer students were attending the public school. Fewer students in public schools might allow the teachers to provide more individualized instruction.

However, a high percentage of school system costs are fixed. For example, no matter how many students attent Rappahannock High School, the building will cost the same to maintain. If 10% of the students took vouchers and attended non-public schools, the county could not achieve major savings by locking up 10% of the classrooms, or reduce custodial costs for cleaning 10% fewer hallways, or stop mowing 10% of the football field......

In areas with a lower cost of living such as Wise County, increased Federal funding might allow school systems to repair/replace old buildings, enhance science labs, purchase subscriptions for the library to access Internet resources such as JSTOR - or pay teachers a higher salary. The impact of the same dollars in Fairfax County, with its higher cost of living, would be far less.

Is that "fair" for Fairfax? If a Wise County student gets a computer sciences degree at Virginia Tech and moves to Northern Virginia to work in a high-tech computer company, do Wise County residents get a fair return on their investment in that student's K-12 education?

What do you think? Should wealthy Fairfax County subsidize poorer Wise County? Should wealthy Virginia subsidize poorer Arkansas? Should the relatively-wealthy United States subsidize education in Mexico, India, etc.?

(NOTE: Since 1913 the Federal income tax has been graduated. The richer you are, the more you pay. Those with a high annual income pay a higher percentage of it in Federal income taxes - assuming the accountants don't shelter all of their income from taxation...).

Population, Wealth, and Property Taxes: The Impact on School Funding
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