• Jerry Paytas

Back to Class: What we don’t know about school districts can hurt us

The current COVID-19 pandemic has had a significant negative impact on our national education system, particularly primary and secondary education. There is a lot of discussion about reopening versus remote learning and how these choices impact the mission of educating the nation’s children. With schools, as with everything else, this pandemic has only revealed fault lines that have long existed within the educational system.

Let’s start with some fundamental issues, like how our education system is organized, governed, and funded. If you had to take a Pop Quiz about your local school district, how would you do?

  1. Is there an elected or appointed school board in your district?

  2. Who is the school board president?

  3. Who is your school district representative?

  4. How does your state fund local school districts?

  5. DId you vote in the last school board election?

Most people, myself included, can only answer one of these questions correctly. We are woefully ignorant about how these systems operate. Given that we have more than 57 million kids in more than 13,000 school districts, it seems worth paying some attention to a unit of government that touches all of our lives and which accounts for $832 billion dollars (or 4 percent of the US GDP in 2018.

The U.S. has more than 13,000 elementary-secondary school systems. More than 12,000 of these, 92 percent are independent school systems. This means that they are governments independent and separate from any municipality, county, or state. Generally it also means that they have their taxing authority. School districts were separated from local government to keep politics out of the school system and to increase accountability by directly electing representatives to govern our schools. But given the challenges that face our school systems today, it has to be said that this model of independent local control is not up to the challenge of providing a quality education. Given that most people know so little about their school boards, that turnout is often low in school district races, and those that do vote do not look like the student enrollment, this system does not create accountability.

The disjoint between local schools and municipal governments are a constant tension in economic development. Schools are one of the most important factors when families are choosing a community, but the decisions about schools are separate from the development decisions of the municipality.

Municipalities have an incentive to increase their tax base through development, but residential development increases the demand for education without providing enough revenue to pay for it. On average, we spend more than $14,400 per pupil in the United States. 45 percent of that spending on average is from the local government - so $6,480 per pupil. The median home value in the U.S is $204,900. In order to generate enough taxes for the local share of the costs to educate one child, $6,480, the school district taxes would have to be more than 3 percent. In reality, the average property tax rate bill is less than $2,400 (and this includes schools and local government) and only four states have property tax rates above two percent. The result is that you need nearly three homes to pay for the education of each child, or you need commercial and industrial development to supplement the tax base.

School reform is a long road, and there are enough critics bashing our public schools in particular, so the point here is not to pile on with additional criticism. The point is not that our schools are failing us, we are failing our schools. We don’t pay attention, we don’t provide enough funding, and we don’t include school considerations in our development decisions. We don’t have time to wait for structural solutions. In the interim, local economic development and planning efforts must do more to include school officials as a tiny step towards a better recognition of the interdependence between our schools systems and local government. For the average citizen, there is something that everyone can do and that is to educate yourself about your school and vote in your local school elections.


Below are some resources to get you started to learn more about the organization and funding of school systems and how local governments and schools can build more effective relationships


Finance and Organization

Collaboration and Partnerships