By Kevin Hart
What would you call a bill that will limit investment in needy schools, lock in disparities among wealthy and low-income districts, and result in job losses and cuts to key education programs? If Governor Andrew Cuomo and some members of the New York State Legislature have their way, they’ll be calling it a law.
But educators across the Empire State are banding together to expose the latest “tax cap” proposal as the harmful gimmick that it is.
The state Legislature is currently considering tax cap legislation that would strip communities of their ability to adequately fund local schools through property taxes. Property taxes are currently a major funding mechanism for New York schools. As the legislation is currently written, local property taxes that fund education could not increase by more than 2 percent a year unless 60 percent of voters — a “super majority” – votes to lift the cap.
Much, if not all, of the maximum 2 percent increase could be consumed by fixed costs over which schools have no control, such as rising fuel and health care costs, and the expenses associated with state and federal mandates. That means schools will have less money each year to spend on smaller class sizes, technology, and programs designed to support students with special needs.
Research by the New York State School Boards Association has shown that local districts could lose billions in funding if tax caps are enacted, and schools in high-poverty areas would be disproportionately affected.
“The most glaring inequity is the undemocratic way this bad bill sets up a ‘protected class’ – the 40 percent of voters who would be able to block the will of the majority when they want to invest more in their children, their schools and their property values by providing the best education possible to students,” said Andrew Pallotta, a former New York City elementary school teacher who now serves as Executive Vice President of New York State United Teachers, an affiliate of the National Education Association.
The tax caps are particularly troubling at a time when the state has increasingly backtracked on its obligation to adequately fund New York’s public schools. Just this year, the state cut $1.4 billion in education funding, and a property tax cap would handcuff communities looking to offset future state cuts to education.
“New York would be devastated by the toughest cap in the nation at a time when its public schools have suffered three years of the toughest cuts to education,” said NYSUT President Richard C. Iannuzzi, a former elementary school teacher from Long Island. “There’s no question this strikes at the heart of the educational needs of the most vulnerable students, especially children of color and children who live in poverty.”
Proponents of the bill, such as Cuomo, claim that New York voters are demanding property tax caps – but the results from annual school budget votes tell a far different story. Each year, New Yorkers have the opportunity to vote on their school budgets and reject proposed increases to their property taxes – this year, 92 percent of school districts approved their school budgets. Last year, 93 percent of school budgets passed.
New York voters know that investing in schools benefits New York’s economy and local property values. But under the new “super majority” provision in the tax caps legislation, many recently-passed school budgets would have failed – and lower-income students would have been left holding the bag.
According to Iannuzzi, two-thirds of the budgets that would have failed under the tax cap’s provisions are located in New York’s poorest districts. Tax cap proponents are not only turning a blind eye toward New York’s neediest students – they’re also ignoring tax caps’ ugly history in several other states.
Tax caps are not a novel or new approach. They are a tired gimmick with a history of failure. Tax caps have been implemented with harmful consequences in Massachusetts, Illinois, California and Colorado. Colorado repealed its tax cap laws after experiencing serious erosions in public services.
New York educators are fighting back against the dangerous tax caps proposal. NYSUT is running radio advertisements throughout the state and has joined with New Yorkers For Fiscal Fairness to launch a Web site, Bad Cap City News, that takes a frightening, satirical look at what tax caps would mean for New York’s schools.
NYSUT is also advancing a “circuit breaker” proposal that would target property tax relief to needy residents without eviscerating funding for local schools.
New Yorkers who want to join the fight against tax caps can contact their legislators from the NYSUT Web site.