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Smart Growth and Schools

Urban sprawl's impact on school funding is more of a smart growth issue than is commonly realized.
November 14, 2003, 12am PST | Jonathan D. Weiss
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 Jonathan D. WeissThe most important -- though largely overlooked -- smart growth debate in the country the past year hasn't focused on smart growth or urban sprawl. It's about public schools and taxes.

Look no further than Pennsylvania. Since taking office early this year, Governor Ed Rendell has been in a heated battle with the state legislature over school funding. As part of a dramatic package of school reforms, Rendell originally called for reducing local property taxes by 30 percent and increasing the state share of education funding by $1.5 billion.

The Governor has had to scale back his proposal in negotiations with the legislature, and there's no assurance that property taxes will actually be reduced as part of a final package -- but Rendell has sparked a major discussion in the state about the outmoded financing system.

Any such discussion is good. Good for schools, good for the economy -- and good for smart growth.

Most localities in most states -- Pennsylvania is a prime example -- are dependent on local property taxes to fund their schools. This system virtually starves schools in less affluent, older communities, while encouraging localities to fight each other for taxable development. To compound the injury, state funding often tilts towards schools in outer suburbs -– with money going to new school construction on the outskirts.

A vicious cycle is created. Drawn by better schools further out, better-off families in central cities and inner-ring suburbs often leave, draining the local tax base. School funding drops, followed by property values. Another neighborhood is abandoned by the middle class.

Attracting single young professionals has certainly helped lift some cities up, but keeping families is another story. And what of the poor and minorities left behind?

A report last month by the Education Trust documents the large funding gaps between school districts. In most states, school districts that educate the greatest number of low-income and minority students receive substantially less than districts with the fewest low-income and minority students. Pennsylvania, according to the study, has one of the most inequitable systems in the country.

But as Rendell has discovered, this is not an easy issue to take on. It has required him to go to the brink of war with the legislature.

Tough as it may be in the short term, it's time for smart growth and economic development advocates across the country to join with education advocates to improve the public schools and to lay the groundwork for changing outmoded state and local financing systems. A campaign for "Less Sprawl, Better Schools" can bring together in a fundamental way a host of allies that have never before worked together.

Of course, changing old systems is never easy. But new leaders and coalitions can provide new solutions.

Jonathan D. Weiss, a former aide to Vice President Gore, directs the George Washington University Center on Sustainable Growth.


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