Local Taxes and School Funding as Policy Debate

So my property taxes are going up by about 8% because, as far as I can tell, writing good policy is hard. But it may at least provide a decent learning experience.

Step 1: What happened?
Many years ago, the people of Oregon decided to fight back against rising property taxes by turning most of the funding for local schools over to the state. Limitations on property tax increases were included in this legislation. Additionally, we have/had a public pension system that was apparently devised when the economy was doing well and it (foolishly) promised to pay out as if the economy would always do well. Well, the economy has not done so well and the state doesn’t have the money to distribute to the schools, and (allegedly) much of its money is going into the over-promised pension fund. So the ready solution is for the local school district to circumvent the state funding model and appeal to the voters for more funds directly with a property tax levy.

Step 2: Can we write that as an affirmative policy case?
Of course!

  • Harm: School district doesn’t have enough money to keep teachers working, resulting in (sub a) unemployed professional educators and (sub b) larger class sizes that diminish the quality of education received by students.
  • Inherent Barrier: State is not providing the local school district with adequate funds to maintain quality of service levels and teacher employment.
  • Plan: Levy property taxes — as is often done — to directly fund local teaching positions.
  • Solvency: Partial solvency is achieved by bringing back 25%ish of the teaching positions that have been cut from the budget, putting professionals back to work and improving educational quality.
  • Advantage: Short-term economics, because employed professionals are good for the economy.
  • Advantage: Long-term economics, because education is critical to national economic competitiveness what with kids being the future and stuff.

Now you’ll notice that our state pension program (PERS) isn’t mentioned here; that’s because the local district can do jack-all about it, so it’s not relevant to squeezing more money out of voters. But if you’re looking very closely at inherency, you’ll notice something fishy that almost every policy debater does: blame those assholes over there. This is fine as long as we don’t actually care about implementing a policy, but real policy requires us to understand how those assholes over there got in the way of good public policy — which usually requires thinking about them in terms other than “assholes over there.” And a lot of the time, those aren’t even the assholes we’re looking for. (Why are we looking for assholes? Simple, so we’ve got somebody to blame!) Indeed, much of our current situation is based on policy written by those assholes back then rather than those assholes over there — but make no mistake, the literature advocating the tax increase promised that our money wouldn’t go down to Salem (the state capital, full of those assholes over there) without looking at any of the legislative context around our situation.

Step 3: So what did the Affirmative not tell us?
First, obviously, the amount of money being paid out to former teachers isn’t being mentioned; it’s totally off the table. If that number continues to outgrow the economy, we’re going to still have less money to spend on current teachers. But I don’t have particularly solid analysis on that other than some news articles indicating that those assholes over there are aware of the problem and trying to come to a compromise to get out of it.

Secondly and more distressingly, the state funding model is written to decrease funds provided to a school when local funding is increased.  (Video, see 9:30-10:00. Reiteration 16:30 in this video from the same meeting). The accompanying slides are also available and illuminating. So the state has decided how much money our schools should have and if we’re paying directly into our school funds, then the state will take the taxes they’re collecting from us and spend them on other things (like other underfunded schools throughout the state). This isn’t bad, but the part where we’re promised that local school funding results in our money not going to Salem? Yeah, that sounds like a lie.

Third, the formula used by the state to determine the amount of funding schools should receive is apparently laced with what can be read as perverse incentives: the academically-gifted-and-not-particularly-troubled suburban kid is worth 1 point of funding, the neglected, pregnant, impoverished immigrant student would be worth 3 points of funding. Stick a pin in this, we’ll come right back to it.

Step 4: So how many attacks can we make on the affirmative case?

Attack on Inherency-to-Solvency:
Inherency is being misread: the state provides less money to school districts with stronger property tax bases, so a direct funding plan is less direct than intended, which mitigates all solvency benefits that they claim. Failure to address the real inherent barrier of standing policy dooms the proposed policy to failure.

Attack on Plan-to-Solvency by Inherency:
Plan that raises local taxes will push impoverished families out of the district and towards cheaper districts. But here’s the thing: school districts get extra funding for at-risk students on a variety of factors inclusive of poverty-stricken students. So by forcing poor families out of the district via tax increases, we’re losing both baseline and supplemental funding for those students.

Attack on Solvency by Inherency:
Any success the plan does enjoy in terms of improving educational quality will result in kids being more engaged in their education and thinking harder about their future and making better choices with their lives, like not engaging in risky sex. Or maybe we just hire a better sex ed teacher. Either way, teen pregnancy goes down. And when teen pregnancy goes down, funding goes down too — because teenage parents are worth even more supplemental funding from the state than poor kids are.

Using Inherency to attack Harms (roll-up):
Overall, we have inherent barriers to funding from the state level that effectively punish school districts that have strong support from their local citizen tax-base and reward them for having at-risk or actively troubled students. This is perverse model that will thwart any small-scale policy’s ability to solve problems and needs to be addressed, not circumvented. The affirmative has mis-understood the structural harms of the system and thus proposed an ineffective plan.

Attack on Harms-to-Solvency:
Ongoing increased spending on public pensions — the notorious PERS — are cutting funding before it can be spent on current working programs. By ignoring how much of the pretty-much-flat funding is being skimmed off by the prior obligation of PERS, the affirmative position is mis-reading the harms and will be unable to solve for them: the decline in education will continue because the a priori spending isn’t being addressed in plan.

Attack on Inherency:
State is cutting PERS pensions already to free up funding for education. Unions say that any cuts are an illegal breach of contract on the one side while Republicans say that the cuts aren’t deep enough to solve problems, but the point is that there’s already a plan in place so this plan, if it weren’t rife with problems, would still be questionable in terms of its value proposition to the expected increase in state funding as a result of the state action.

Extend Inherency to Solvency via Harms:
And it’s notable that a lot of folks in the legislature (ibid) are saying that even that plan that does address PERS isn’t going to solve, so this plan which doesn’t address PERS isn’t going to do a darned thing. If we look at the a priori PERS funding as a key underlying cause of current harms, we see that the Aff plan doesn’t address it at all and thus can’t solve for it.

So while we’re very much in favor of their goals, you have to understand that they aren’t going to be able to deliver them: they’re just going to be undercutting state funding in 3 different ways which will maintain the problem because state funding is perversely configured against support of plans like this, and they’re not addressing the ongoing and increasing spending on state pensions that intercept funding and take it away from keeping teachers employed and classrooms effective that either isn’t or can’t be effectively handled by the state government already.

Voters:

  1. Local funding replaces and cuts state funding — solvency reduced.
  2. Increased taxes drives out poor students, cuts state funding — solvency reduced.
  3. Effective education cuts at-risk students, cuts state funding — solvency reduced.
  4. State is already acting to increase state funding, problem might already be solved (but probably not).
  5. Any plan that doesn’t reign in a priori PERS spending is doomed to non-solvency.

So a plan that could only give us partial solvency from its inception is losing that partial solvency in 4 different ways and being solved by those assholes over there that we’re trying to blame anyway. And we can say all of that without going back to a generic tax-raising-is-bad disadvantage.

Step 5: So what did the voter’s pamphlet say against raising taxes?
Not a damned thing. It might be that I’m wrong on all of these points despite the evidence presented. This seems unlikely to me; I solicited clarification and/or rebuttal from teachers and political activists prior to writing this in the hopes that this policy (which predictably passed) might just maybe do something good. What seems more likely is that the people who can do this kind of analysis — ohai! — first learned about the tax increase when the voter’s pamphlet showed up in their mailbox with a whole lot of letters of support for raising taxes (for the teachers! for the kids!) and not a word of dissent against it. But the big appeal to pathos (for the teachers! for the kids!) taps into people’s belief that they’re good people who do such things (for the teachers! for the kids!) without noticing how much they’re increasing their taxes or the relative amount of funding that they’re providing to their schools (roughly +26% above baseline property-tax-for-schools rate) or that the state is probably going to stop sending our other tax monies back to our school district when we’re paying more taxes to ensure that it’s properly funded. And the problem with pathos and value appeals is that they tend to shut down the rational debate: by the time the legislation (for the teachers! for the kids!) is crafted, badly, it’s too late to ask if it makes any sense at all because it’s already time to put it to the public for a vote. Rather than ensuring that we’ve successfully worked our way around the state’s dodgy funding mechanism, and completely ignoring whether or not the state’s funding formula features perverse incentives masquerading as giving support where support is needed most, the public is given legislation that looks like it will do jack-all in the long run and told to vote in favor of it (for the teachers! for the kids!), which they do.

I know a lot of really nice and really over-worked teachers. I even know some nice kids. And I would gladly pay more in taxes if I thought that it would provide any substantial or meaningful improvement to the public education system. But instead we’re laying down public policy based on our dedication to values (teachers! kids!) while staying ignorant of the policy morass we’ve been sinking into over the years.

Update: There are some rare occasions when those assholes over there will provide evidence that they really are part of the inherent barrier to solving a problem in the status quo; in these cases, the aff needs to be sure to have a copy of their diplomatically belligerent ineptitude available for display.