Monday, April 23, 2012

Lawmakers acknowledge inequity in school funding

In South Carolina, good ideas are rare to emerge from our State House -- no sense denying the truth -- but every good idea is chained at the waist to two or three bad ones.

Here's an example, as reported by WTLX:

A bi-partisan group of South Carolina legislators wants to create a uniform education funding system that boosts funding for most students while cutting property taxes for businesses and rental owners.

Catch that? One step forward, two steps back.

Arithmetic is simple. One plus one equals two. Five plus five equals ten. Ten is more than two.

Today, some schools are getting level-two funding. Some are getting level-ten funding. That's unequal.

Funding comes from tax revenue.

It's a great idea to create a single pot of tax revenue out of which all schools can be funded equitably.

It's a foolish idea to cut the tax revenue that will go into that pot, because cutting the tax revenue means that there's fewer dollars in the pot to improve school funding.

Republican Rep. Jenny Horne of Summerville led a news conference Tuesday calling for a revamping of South Carolina's fragmented, decades-old education funding formulas.

The five Republicans and one Democrat say a bill will be filed Wednesday to jumpstart the conversation.

The concept involves creating a statewide system of property tax billing for school operations and spending the same on students statewide. The amount per child would be weighted with additional spending, for example, for poor students and gifted and talented students.

Here's where this proposal will fail: By cutting tax revenues, these lawmakers are telling communities whose schools are currently funded at level-ten that they're going to have to settle for level-six funding, in order to raise level-twos up to level-six too.

They're not going to go for that, which means this has been an exercise in futility. You don't feed more children equitably by making the pie smaller; you feed more children equitably by making the pie bigger.

Most businesses would get a tax break.

Well, of course they would. This is South Carolina; night follows day, and the sun rises in the East.

Here's coverage of the same topic by the South Carolina Radio Network:

A group of state legislators unveiled a new proposal Tuesday that would make major changes to how public schools are funded in South Carolina.

Rep. Jenny Horne (R-Summerville) called the idea a "win-win" for public education and business.

A bipartisan group of lawmakers want to set a single property tax millage rate across the entire state and put that money into a single pot. That money would then be divided up on a per-pupil basis and sent back to districts, with weighted amounts for students with disabilities, low income or other factors.

The idea is to replace the state’s four-decade-old funding formula that has become a patchwork of different tax rates and funding levels.

“We’ve got 85 school districts in this state. We’ve got 85 different funding formulas,” said Sen. Paul Campbell (R-Goose Creek), who plans to introduce the proposal in the Senate Wednesday. “What we need is a comon funding formula in this state.”

A group of five Republicans and one Democratic legislator held a press conference in the Statehouse lobby Tuesday to unveil the proposal.

“We’ve heard for years that the money needs to follow the child,” Rep. Doug Brannon (R-Landrum) said, “Under the current education funding process, that’s just not possible.”

Brannon said education funding reform is needed before lawmakers can start tax reform, since property taxes mostly go towards schools and education makes up more than half of the state’s General Fund spending. While unlikely to pass this late in the session, Rep. Jenny Horne (R-Summerville) said it is meant to start a conversation for next year’s session.

Education groups agreed. Debbie Elmore of the South Carolina Association of School Boards said she was glad lawmakers recognized the need to change how school districts are funded. “It’s like a blast of cool water on a hot day. It’s refreshing.”

Molly Spearman, executive director of the South Carolina Association of School Administrators, said the original formula was created in the 1970s and has not been updated since– meaning many counties treated as “rural” under the formula have since seen a significant growth. Others are still treated as if they have a textile mill tax base, when that has not been the case for decades.

Horne called the new proposal a “win-win”: most residents and businesses would see a property tax decrease, while school districts would get a more efficient funding formula.

“This is where the campaign rhetoric ends and true, meaningful tax reform begins,” said Rep. Mia Butler-Garrick (D-Columbia), who joined Republicans in introducing the bill.

The bill will propose a uniform rate of 100 mills rate (a mill equals $1 of property taxed per $1,000 of its assessed value), which would be a decrease in 43 of the state’s 46 counties. Horne said lawmakers would work to find ways to keep the remaining counties (Beaufort, Charleston, and Georgetown) below that rate so that they will not be the only ones to suffer a tax increase.

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