Can Vouchers Help Solve the School Equity Problem?
by Christopher Dodson,
Executive Director, North Dakota Catholic Conference
March 5, 2005

The North Dakota Senate has defeated a proposal to overhaul the way the state funds public education. The bill, HB 1512, would have substantially lowered school district property taxes while making up the difference with increases in the state sales, personal, and corporate income taxes. The proposal, which unexpectedly passed the state House of Representatives, was the first seriously considered attempt by the state legislature to address inequities in the way schools are funded.

The state currently faces a lawsuit – not the first one – alleging that the state’s education system unfairly, and illegally, favors some districts over others. The problem stems from the system’s heavy reliance on property taxes to fund schools districts. Since property values vary, the amount of funding going to schools varies. At the same time, constituent complaints about high property taxes pose political problems for the state’s legislators.

It should come as no surprise, therefore, that HB 1512 received so much attention. In the end, the Senate defeated the bill, but not before many legislators went on record to say that the concept of the bill might some day provide an answer to the equity problem – even if they did not like some of the bill’s specifics or that they were not ready for so much change at one time.

Without, however, a major change away from the reliance on property taxes, the equity problem will likely continue. The problem is not unique to North Dakota. Nor is the problem new.

After the desegregation that followed Brown v. Board of Education, education observers noted that inequities in education continued, particularly with disparities in per-pupil funding. In the late 1960s and early 1970s, John Coons and Stephen Sugarman, law professors from the University of California, Berkeley, published some of the most important works on question. The problem, they noted, stemmed from the education system’s reliance on property taxes. Property taxes, since they are based on the value of the properties, could be fair among landowners. However, since people tend to move to and build homes according to economic status, the amount of money raised by the property taxes is not equitable. In other words, so long as there are wealthy neighborhoods and poor neighborhoods, tying education funding to property taxes will create wealthy school districts and poor school districts.

Sugarman and Coons, proposed several solutions to the problem. One of their proposals, school vouchers, seems to have been forgotten in the debate over school funding equity. Before free market conservatives and Evangelical Protestants took up the cause for vouchers, Sugarman and Coons argued for school vouchers as one way to address the inequities in per pupil funding. Since the cost of educating a child is, compared to land values, relatively uniform, funding should follow the student. Doing so would bring to a poor area funding that it otherwise would not have. Since some disparities – economic, social, and racial – will continue to exist, vouchers would also allow a student from a poor area to receive education in a wealthier neighborhood with possibly more opportunities.

The “progressive” argument for school choice as a way to fight economic disparities continues to exist and is one reason for the implementation of school choice programs in Milwaukee, Cleveland, and the District of Columbia. It reflects the principle that funding mechanisms should reflect a person’s educational need, rather than where they live. Opponents of school choice, however, ignore it in their attempt to portray school choice as a program pushed by the rich and religious intolerant.

Parental choice in education funding, in truth, has something that should appeal across ideological lines, whether they are interested in fighting poverty, improving education, respecting parental rights, or helping children with special needs. The North Dakota legislature will inevitably have to look at a variety of proposals to deal with the equity problem. Perhaps it is time to include school choice as one part of the solution.