emhs_fall_2011_001Education advocates and financial experts agree that the state-imposed 2% property tax cap will steadily widen the already yawning gap between low-and high-wealth school districts.

Before we continue, let's clarify one thing. Contrary to what your state legislators, the Governor and the news media have been trumpeting, the 2% tax cap doesn't necessarily mean that your school budget will go up a tidy 2%.

The new state law mandates that school districts can only increase the property tax levy to cover expenses by 2% or by the rate of inflation -- whichever is lowest. But that's not the end of it; there are several exemptions, such as debt-service financing.

However the numbers shake out out for individual districts, a tax cap is bad news for lower-wealth REFIT districts.

"Though we understand that the 2% tax cap is not as tidy was state lawmakers and the media would have us believe, REFIT cannot support a law that systematically harms its members," Said REFIT Executive Director Robert Dillon. "Children in lower wealth districts will bear the brunt of the steady and consistent decline in educational programs."

"New York already has the worst gap between rich and poor school districts," Billy Easton, executive director of Alliance for Quality Education, said in a statement. The tax cap, he said, would "significantly widen" that disparity.

To illustrate, let's compare how the cap affects one high-wealth and one low-wealth district.

Manhasset spends $23,162 per pupil in its current budget, according to a Newsday analysis. Elmont, a REFIT district, pays nearly half that -- $11,938 per student. Both districts spend about the same percentage -- a little more than 78% -- of their budget on instruction, so it doesn't appear as if either is throwing away money on extraneous expenses.

Now let's give each district an increase of 2%. A 2% increase for a Manhassset student is $463.24. For an Elmont pupil, it's just $238.76. And that's only the first year.

"You don't have to be a math genius to predict how that disparity will look in ten years," Elmont education activist Aubrey Phillips said. "And Elmont residents, like those in every other REFIT district, spend a larger percentage of their income on taxes, and on necessities such as food and transportation. This is going to be devastating for REFIT districts."

A Moody's Investors Service report released in July confirms this, saying  school districts already facing lower tax revenue and higher expenses will especially feel the pressure. "[T]he new restriction on the taxing powers of local entities only adds to their weakened finances," Moody's analyst Robert Weber said in a statement.

From the state lawmakers' perspective, the tax cap was a political no-brainer. They look like heroes, taming out-of-control property taxes. This is especially relevant in New York State, where median household property taxes are $3,755 -- more than double the U.S. median of $1,917 per household. The cap would indeed have been reasonable -- if every school district started on an equal footing.

But in the real world, it appears public education for the rich and the poor will become increasingly separate and unequal.

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