Waterbury’s predicament points to an unstable aspect of the public-education system in the United States: The foundation of its funding comes from local property taxes. As a report from the Lincoln Institute of Land Policy shows, roughly 36 percent of K–12 funding comes from these taxes. That means inequality is often baked into district lines; wealthier communities will have more money to spend on their students. It’s an often mentioned but under-discussed problem, particularly among the 2020 Democratic presidential candidates.
In May, Senator Kamala Harris of California took aim at the disparity. “It is completely upside down that we currently have a system where the funding of a school district is based on the tax base of that community,” she said during a town hall with the American Federation of Teachers. In March, it was Senator Elizabeth Warren of Massachusetts who wanted to take a more national approach to fixing it. “We’ve gotta use our federal education laws to help supplement [local funding] so we can get real money into our public schools K–12,” Warren said. And as part of his Thurgood Marshall Plan for Public Education, the campaign of Senator Bernie Sanders of Vermont writes that he will “rethink the link between property taxes and education funding.”
Rethinking that link is important, Rebecca Sibilia, the executive director of EdBuild, told me, because micro-districting—the term for what is happening in Waterbury and elsewhere—handcuffs some of the tools the government might use to desegregate schools. In 1974, in the Supreme Court case Milliken v. Bradley, the justices ruled that desegregation plans could not leapfrog school-district borders. That means the federal government could shuffle children between schools only in the same district in places like Waterbury. Interestingly, even as Democrats argued over the utility of busing as a method of desegregation during the first two rounds of debates, school funding only tangentially came up as a remedy. “We are still upholding a school system that is separate and unequal,” Sibilia told me.
A browse through other 2020 Democratic contenders’ websites does not turn up much when it comes to addressing the link between property taxes and public schools. And when I reached out to several campaigns—including those of Harris, Sanders, Warren, former Vice President Joe Biden, Senator Cory Booker of New Jersey, former Housing and Urban Development Secretary Julián Castro, and South Bend, Indiana, Mayor Pete Buttigieg—only Castro’s campaign responded with details about how he might address the gap. A spokesman for his campaign told me that his education plan would provide “full Title I funding that would direct federal investment into low-income and high-poverty communities that are often [under-resourced] at the local level, often as a consequence of how property taxes are structured.”