There’s a better way to pay for education

April 2018

US News ranked Massachusetts first in school systems in the US, despite one of the more regressive education funding systems in the country. Most states spread the burden of education costs. One state, Hawaii, runs the whole system at the state level. California devotes 40% of state revenues to fund local systems.

In Massachusetts, on the other hand, we put the majority of the burden on each city and town. They must raise enough money to fund their schools using the property tax. This is a poor way to fund schools, for several reasons.

One reason is that there can be great disparities between towns. Here on Cape Cod, we have two towns, Dennis and Yarmouth, struggling to run a joint school system because of the disparities between them. Yarmouth has roughly 10% less property to tax (measured by the state’s EQV formula), and twice as many students. This means that the tax rate in Yarmouth has to be about 60% higher than Dennis’s rate. Yarmouth residents are far less likely to support increases in the budget.

The Dennis-Yarmouth property tax disparity is not the worst one in Barnstable County. Chatham’s property values are almost double those of Sandwich, and Sandwich has roughly 6 times as many students to pay for. No surprise that the Sandwich tax rate is almost three times higher than Chatham’s.

Fortunately the people of Massachusetts value education, and even those living in high tax towns have been willing to bear the burden of high taxation to see that their kids get a good one.

But everyone has their limits. I say it’s time to look for a better way to fund our schools.

We could start by putting all the high schools in Barnstable in a county school system, funded with a county-wide property tax. That would make towns more willing to approve housing that will bring in young families and add kids to the school system, something we desperately need on Cape Cod.

Another idea would be for the state to hire, certify, and pay all teachers. Each town would be able to hire the teachers it wanted, with the number and type determined by state guidelines, but the state would foot the bill. This would cut out almost two-thirds of most town school budgets, significantly lowering property taxes.

The state could pay for this with a state-wide property tax or a sales tax. Either method would spread the cost of teaching our students to almost everyone.

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