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Back to Home >  Philadelphia Inquirer >  Sunday Neighbors >

Main Line

Posted on Sun, Jan. 12, 2003 story:PUB_DESC
Two topics need action before tax is raised
Real estate-assessment reform and school board accountability will help schools get fairly funded.

For several years, legislative commissions and gubernatorial hopefuls have traveled across the commonwealth to fan resentment over Pennsylvania's "system" of school financing.

At innumerable forums, political hopefuls railed against the real estate taxes that fund local schools, and they played their audiences all the way to the election booth. With the whir of voting machines over and candidates now chosen, a quiet about local tax reform has returned - the carnival show has folded its tents. The special session on tax reform ended without anything being passed, let alone signed.

Just as winter follows fall, this cycle of public outcry, political promise, and then inaction has repeated itself in Pennsylvania for decades. In the spring, just as the soil will get turned by the plow, the elected will proclaim that the state is too broke to reach for the magic 50 percent level of state funding for schools.

It's probably just as well. Inaction forestalled the misguided spending of billions of new state tax dollars to make local schools feel more appreciated before two important but forbidden topics were addressed: real estate-assessment reform and school board accountability. Neither got serious mention in Election 2002. Yet both deserve action before state income taxes are raised dramatically to more fairly fund local schools.

Pennsylvania's system of real estate assessments is one of the worst in the country. Property owners play Russian roulette with the fairness of assessments. Only eight of 67 counties in 2001 met the national 15 percent standard of fairness, with none in Southeastern or Southwestern Pennsylvania. Philadelphia, at 41 percent, is now reassessing to avoid getting sued.

What might allow some optimism for fair and uniform real estate assessments?

Create in each county an elected assessor with an independent budget funded by a statutory millage imposed by the General Assembly.

Threaten removal from office and new election of assessors if the variation in assessments was greater than 15 percent, the national standard.

Have an independent biannual measurement by a beefed-up State Tax Equalization Board.

Appoint independent real estate-appeals tribunals to five-year staggered terms of office.

Prohibit direct and indirect self-dealing (e.g. laundering of bribes through related third parties) by elected assessors and members of real estate-appeals tribunals.

Require financial disclosure of elected assessors and appeals tribunal members' state tax returns and direct and indirect business relationships.

Meaningfully administer the real estate-transfer tax and the collection of buyer and seller Social Security numbers for scrutiny against state personal-income tax returns.

Of course, assessments are only part of the problem.

Read the Pennsylvania School Code, especially the oaths of office for elected school directors and superintendents, and you begin to understand what's wrong with public education, and why improved learning outcomes are of secondary or tertiary interest to school officials.

Neither school directors nor superintendents are obligated to put improved learning first, or to consider it much at all. They just have to uphold federal and state constitutions. Worse, meaningful prohibitions on indirect self-dealing simply don't exist in Pennsylvania. The result can easily be AstroTurf for the football field and contracts to family and friends, but no new textbooks or professional development for teachers.

Even if school directors were to take meaningful oaths of office and be subject to meaningful sanctions for self-dealing, courts will not take these stronger obligations seriously, and neither will directors, until they actually get paid for their work. For $54 million a year, the General Assembly could pay each school director in the state $12,000 a year, and parents and taxpayers could expect some meaningful attention to student learning.

School board directors thus obligated to allocate budgets only to ensure improved learning - subject to meaningful conflict-of-interest prohibitions - and paid to care, no doubt would pay attention to student learning. If not, they would get thrown out of office or be brought before local judges for violating their oath of office.

Icing on the cake might include new state rules for hiring based entirely on the subject knowledge of prospective teachers, rather than on the influence and nepotism that too often dominate hiring decisions today.

Fixing the local assessment process and stressing school-governance accountability are not what the Carnival Show of Local Tax Reform has been about these last several years. Nevertheless, they deserve serious consideration, not only because addressing them is inexpensive and overdue but also because they will work to improve the economy and learning outcomes for our children.

The battle to improve our standard of living in the 21st century will be won or lost in the classrooms of our schools and universities. Shouldn't public school money be raised and used wisely so that we and our children can win?

Robert P. Strauss is a professor of economics and public policy at Carnegie Mellon University. His Web page is
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