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In the next month or so – depending on where you live – students around the country will be starting a school year unlike any other. School districts around the country are struggling to develop plans that will allow students to return to school in-person, or to adapt to online learning. Threats by the present administration to withhold monetary support from districts that are not returning to in-person schooling have cast a new spotlight on the structure of school funding. As the very system of public education faces an unprecedented crisis, now is a perfect time to begin examining, at least in broad terms, the function of public schools from a Georgist perspective.
At first this may seem an odd topic for a Georgist to explore. Henry George himself was unhopeful, if not entirely dismissive, of the potential for education to eliminate poverty. He acknowledged the importance of education in increasing the productivity of society as a whole. However, he noted that, while an individual gaining more education could improve their wages relative to those less educated than themselves, the increase in the education level of society would not improve workers’ wages so long as the fundamental inequalities remain in the economy.
I have worked in education for nearly a decade now, and find George’s take disheartening, but truthful – even education schemes focused on improving equality of student outcomes face a task that is Herculean at best and Sisyphean at worst: the weight of societal inequalities is, in many cases, too great to bourne even by a well-conceived and executed education plan. Often it feels like we, as educators, are doing our best to help students dodge the absolute worst outcomes, with only a few opportunities to provide real empowerment. However, this only increases the urgency of providing a Georgist analysis to the problem: George both helps to make political-economic sense of what the impacts of our education system are, and how the results we actually want can be achieved.
First, from a Georgist perspective, it is important to see schools as a prime example of public infrastructure that dramatically impacts land prices (and thus rents). A sort of natural experiment took place in Florida – the state implemented a new ‘grading system’ for schools, that allowed parents to compare schools directly. The result? Those houses near high performing school gained $10,000 in the first year, and the gap between houses in the highest and lowest performing neighborhoods has only risen since then, reaching up to $300,000 dollars in difference simply due to proximity to a very well rated, as opposed to a very poorly rated, school. This has the effect of deepening economics gaps, and ossifying existing inequality. When a school system is recognized as high quality, it attracts wealthier residents to its area and drives up its own property taxes, further contributing to its quality (or at least perception thereof) and reinforcing the cycle. Like a railroad route in the 19th century, the existence of a good school has an overwhelming impact on the value of land, by increasing the potential productivity of it.
This is all predictable, of course, by Ricardo’s law of rent, of which George made extensive use:
“The rent of land is determined by the excess of its product over that which the same application can secure from the least productive land in use.”
If residence on a particular plot of land entitles a family to a public education that’s worth $10,000 a year, compared to the education to be had at an inferior school, the potential rent on that plot rises accordingly. Like any inequality in U.S. society, this one also has profound racial implications. Suffering from decades of redlining and de facto segregation, and still facing discriminatory practices in housing lending, Black families are much less likely to be reaping the benefits of this unequal rise in the value of land near the highest quality schools, because they are far less likely to own land in those neighborhoods (and if they rent their homes, they may find themselves displaced by rising rents, so that their enjoyment of these gains is only temporary).
Moreover, the unequal quality of public schools serves as a geographical gatekeeper, making economic mobility difficult because geographic mobility is so difficult. As with the segregation of a previous time period, there are both legal and market forces at work here. While the market and law of rent ensure that land prices are higher in proximity to good schools, zoning and density rules also conspire against renters. According to a study by the Brookings Institute, there are 30% fewer rentable units in the proximity of very good schools, and zoning is a significant contributor to the geographic disparities in education quality. Thus, the upper middle class and wealthy landowners are able to leverage both land monopolies and control of local zoning to parlay inequality between schools into a massive human capital advantage for their children.
Which brings us to the threatened withholding of Federal funds, which would only exacerbate an already bad situation. In most cases, local funding for schools is highly regressive – districts attended by poorer students tend to have less money. State and, especially, Federal funding is more progressive, targeting underfunded districts to make up for these disparities. If Federal funding were cut off across the board, school funding formulas altogether would become far more regressive. The specific threat, however, of cutting off funding to schools that do not re-open might be even more harmful: as COVID 19 has been more impactful in poor and non-white communities, the schools attended by those families are less likely to be able to safely open. An order cutting off funding to specifically those schools would likely create a massive disparity between richer and poorer districts.
Even in the absence of such dramatic action, however, the question remains – what is a Georgist response to the current school system? A relatively mundane Georgist reform, shifting property taxes to land taxes, would likely have a salutary effect; efforts to decease the equality gap between schools could also have broader impacts on the nature of rent in the US and could thus be justified on Georgist grounds. However, it is important to recognize that these efforts are just a beginning – ultimately education itself is not a sufficient remedy for the problem of poverty; rather, the elimination of poverty will be the key to solving our educational dilemmas.
Shifting property taxes – which currently fund schools – to land taxes is probably the simplest proposal in the Georgist playbook, but even it would have major impacts on urban geography and thus on school system. Currently, building land-efficient multi-unit housing incurs substantial tax costs compared to a single-family home or infill apartments (like a duplex), because the cost and thus value of such a building is higher. Since most jurisdictions levy taxes based either on the estimated cost of a property, or the revenue it is expected to generate, precisely the sort of development that could increase the number of rentable units in desirable neighborhoods and potentially drive down costs (or at least mitigate the impact of land rents on housing costs) is effectively penalized. If this were reversed, and instead taxes fell most heavily on properties that used a large amount of valuable land, regardless of structure value, there would be an incentive to develop these lots more intensely and indeed for landowners to lobby for looser zoning to do so. An increase in the number of rentals & shrinking the size of lots would bring populations physically closer together. In the short term, this would remove some of the barriers to families moving closer to ‘good’ schools; in the longer term, it could actually make a choice in enrollment between various school possible (because the denser population could support several schools within a reasonable travel distance). However, this direct application of Georgist tax policy could only have limited direct impacts on educational equity – the deeper problem of will remain in the inequality of the society the students themselves live in.
My personal experience of this came from 2010-2013, when I worked as an academic tutor in a program designed to help improve outcomes for Native American students in my hometown of Helena, Montana. The increased resources made available to students as part of the program certainly helped some – there were almost certainly students who graduated and continued their education who would not have been able to without the increased assistance. But it also showed the limits of what even a good educational system can provide – students whose lives outside of school are complicated by homelessness, incarceration, violence, substance abuse, and both systemic and personal racism require nearly super human dedication to succeed academically, regardless of the resources provided.
Some commentators, especially but by no means exclusively cultural conservatives, are wont to blame the community problems which drag down students on ‘culture’. ‘If only’, they muse, ‘these students had fathers in the home, good role models, they would be able to take advantage of the resources available to them.’ This is a distraction, the description of a symptom, not the illness.
Henry George noted that the origin of many of the problems we still see today is our economic system, writing that infant mortality, alcoholism, crime, and the policing used to control it were all “items in the sum which the present unjust and unequal distribution of wealth takes from the aggregate which, with present means of production, society might enjoy.” George’s answer to these cultural problems is thus straightforward (and flies straight in the face of these ‘cultural’ explanations): “To make people industrious, prudent, skillful, and intelligent, they must be relieved from want.”
What does this mean for our education system? That it simply cannot do the heavy lifting on its own. It cannot, alone, lift students out of poverty, at least not on a societal scale, if the rest of the economy is engineered against them. A broader application of George’s ideas is needed, one that undercuts the foundations of inequality. Fortunately, the formula George (and others) has provided offers a roadmap. Capture land rent, which currently enriches a wealthy and overwhelmingly white section of society, and use it for the public good. This can make particular progress in reversing racial inequality, since land value and other kinds of rents make up such a great portion of the racial wealth gap and, as discussed above, are particularly used to gatekeep quality education. Taking these rents and investing them into communities is the surest way to relieve people from want. If we believe, as educational proponents proclaim, that change begins with children, we need to relieve children and parents from want. We can do this by making housing, healthcare, and food easily accessible for every child in the country – paid for by these publicly captured rents.
In summary, a Georgist response to the failings of the U.S. education system must address three timeframes. Today, we must ensure that our education funding does not become suddenly (more) regressive – which would be the inevitable result of a stoppage in federal funds due to a proposed COVID re-opening policy. The next priority should be to make local taxes more rational, by replacing property taxes with land value taxes. This better funds education and allows for a fairer housing market to improve access to good schools. Finally, our long-term goal, as it ever is, must be to eliminate poverty. Only by removing this burden from the shoulders of our disadvantage students can we truly unleash their potential and make room for education to be a transformative tool in their lives.