A student asks: Is funding schools through property taxes the best way to do things?

After reading about the problems that the Chester-Upland school district, which just outside of Philadelphia, is facing, one of my urban education students said, “It is pretty obvious that the property tax-based formula is not working, so a new plan needs to be set up with the state’s aid.” How did she come to that conclusion? In my course, one thing that the students learn in how schools are funded. All school districts are funded by a combination of property taxes as well as state and federal funds. The balance of that depends on the district. In a place like Chester-Upland, an old industrial city, the schools have reflected a larger demographic change resulting from loss of jobs as well as white flight. Now, Chester-Upland is 90% black, poor, and segregated.


In 2015, the district is not only in the red, but has not been able to make payroll or pay its vendors this year because it does not have the tax revenue to do so.  It is no accident. The state has shrunk its contributions to the district’s budget while the tax base has also declined. With the median household income at below $30,000, half of the state average household income. How could a school system survive like that?

My student was right to inquire about the funding system premised on the notion that income will remain steady or increasing. In reality, income streams do not work that way, especially in many urban and inner ring suburban areas where a history of segregated housing policies, white flight, and disinvestment has drained the local coffers. They had learned about the impact those forces have had on Baltimore, so I urged her to dig a little deeper to ask why Pennsylvania has kept antiquated funding systems in place. She needed to ask who benefits from such systems to find the answer.

Recently, the state decided to help cover expenses in Chester-Upland so that they can make it through the beginning of the school year, and charter schools have decided to not charge the district its full fees, but this is not a permanent solution. The state and the district have thought of this, and have looked to privatization as a solution. Outsourcing the schools, they believe, will relieve the financial burden of the schools, while providing a better quality education.


Looking at nearby Philadelphia and other cities shows that this may not work. Philadelphia has turned to privatization and still has the financial troubles that it had before, meanwhile not all charters are performing well. The alternative would be to think about solutions that reinvent the district itself including redrawing district lines so that the tax base is broadened or to stop funding the schools through property taxes and divide finding more evenly among districts through the state. In both scenarios, the public still holds responsibility for all schools, which is what public education is about, right?

One comment

  • The question is all wrong. The issue isn’t the type of tax. The issue is the origination of the tax.

    If the school property tax was a statewide assessment/levy that then went into the state pool to be distributed based on formula, would the property tax still be a bad vehicle?


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