Previously, I discussed the idea, popular in some quarters, that if a parent withdraws his child from a public school in order to send him to a private school, the parent ought to reimburse the district for lost adequacy funds.
Today I’d like to discuss a complementary idea, also popular in some quarters, that if a parent withdraws his child from public school, the school district should refund his school taxes.
Both ideas are based on a faulty model of how school funding works.
In the standard case, you live in a district that provides grades K through 12, in one or more schools. Everyone who pays school taxes in that district is paying, not to educate the kids, but to run those schools. The people who happen to have children may send the children to the schools at no additional cost above the taxes they’ve already paid.
If you take your child out of one of those schools, what happens to the cost of running the school? It isn’t reduced at all. What is your share of a reduction of zero dollars? That would also be zero dollars — the amount of your ‘refund’.
To help see why this is the case, suppose your child dies, or leaves the area as part of a custody agreement, or graduates, or just drops out. Now you’re no longer sending him to the district schools. Would you expect your school taxes to be refunded? Of course not. Everyone pays for the schools, whether they use them or not.
But although the cost of running the schools doesn’t change when your kid withdraws, the outside revenues collected by the district may be reduced. In particular, if the district is SWEPT-deficient, and collects adequacy funds from the state education trust fund, then withdrawing your child means the town has to replace as much as $3700 that it won’t be getting from the state — although it would typically be much less than that. Where’s it going to get that money? It will have to increase school taxes — yours along with everyone else’s.
So that’s the standard case. What about non-standard cases? There are a couple worth considering.
First, perhaps you live in a district that does not provide some grades, and instead tuitions students in those grades to other schools. In this case, withdrawing your child from the system might save the district some money, if (a) he’s in one of the tuitioned grades, and (b) the amount you pay in taxes is less than the amount the district spends on his tuition.
Second, perhaps your child has special needs, and withdrawing him would significantly change the cost of running the district, by eliminating a costly out-of-district placement, or allowing the school to drop dedicated specialists or aides.
In these two cases, the costs of running the district would be significantly reduced, and your fellow taxpayers would be better off if they could just pretend that you’re not part of the district — collecting no taxes from you, and spending no money on your child.
And in these two cases, it would be nice if the district could effectively make that deal, although I’m not sure what the legal mechanism for that would be. (I once heard someone at a district meeting suggest that our district should rent an apartment in another district for a special-needs family, saving our district more than $100K per year.)
But even in these two cases, it’s important to remember that the size of the numbers doesn’t change the nature of the system, which is that the district provides, not an education for the children in the district, but a school where they can get (or more often fail to get) an education. And you pay for the school, even one you don’t send your kids to — in the same way you pay for roads that you don’t drive on, public parks that you don’t use, and so on.