Now that the Democratic majorities in the General Assembly are increasing as a result of last month’s election, visions of sugarplums dance again in the heads of those who think that “property tax reform” and spending more on municipal schools can save Connecticut’s cities and their poor students.
It’s a reminder of the popular definition of insanity: doing the same thing over and over and expecting a different result. Of course that could double as the definition of persistence — persistence being, as Coolidge said, the prerequisite for problem solving. But even for the persistent there comes a time to cut one’s losses, and that time has come in Connecticut for “property tax reform” and spending more on schools.
These two causes long have been intertwined and have been addressed by governors and legislatures going back to the state Supreme Court’s decision in the school financing case of Horton v. Meskill in 1977, after which Connecticut began reducing the reliance of municipal schools on local property taxes. The Education Enhancement Act of 1986 put still more money into schools. In 1988 came the Education Cost Sharing Act, which established a detailed formula for state grants to schools. The formula has been revised frequently since then, but on the whole for more than 40 years state government has arranged a dramatic increase in spending on schools.
What are the results? Only that Connecticut’s teachers are usually among the best paid in the country. Student performance is unchanged and remains horrifyingly low in the cities, just as municipal property taxes in Connecticut remain among the highest in the country and city property taxes are as awful as city school performance.
That is, there is no such thing as “property tax reform” in Connecticut and there can never be any. There can be only more compensation for municipal government employees, who have first claim on municipal revenue because of collective bargaining and binding arbitration laws and the law prohibiting school systems from reducing spending even when enrollment collapses.
As for student performance, even the state Education Department admits that it has no evidence that increasing per-pupil spending improves learning. Indeed, the social science suggests that educational performance is almost entirely a matter of parenting — that children from two-parent households generally do far better in school than children from single-parent households, since they get much more attention, stimulation, encouragement, discipline, and opportunities at home and thus are better prepared for school.
So why does Connecticut’s unintelligentsia keep pursuing “property tax reform” and spending more on education? It’s because these pursuits are great camouflage for ensuring the contentment of the unionized municipal employees who constitute the army of the state’s majority party. The army must be well paid lest the party risk losing an election to anyone who might wonder why taxes never go down and school performance never goes up despite all the “reform.”
Why do so few seem to notice and protest that tax and education policies never reach their nominal objectives?
News organizations, weakening financially, are growing timid even as Connecticut is full of well-financed special interests that clamor to perpetuate the status quo. Prominent among them is Connecticut Voices for Children, which would be more aptly named Connecticut Voices for Higher Taxes and Expelling the Rich. The organization considers billionaires more of a threat to children than fatherlessness. Last week the organization issued its umpteenth report calling for “tax reform” — that is, raising the state income tax on the rich, as if the rich don’t already produce most income tax revenue, and imposing a punitive property tax surcharge on their mansions, as if the mansions don’t already pay more in property taxes as well.
While he is a Democrat, Governor Lamont seems reluctant to tax the rich more, lest they join Connecticut’s merely well-to-do in their longstanding exodus to states that have lower taxes because they are not yet controlled by the government employee unions.
But maybe if the rich were driven out, eliminating that option for raising taxes, Connecticut at last could have a serious discussion about its most expensive mistaken premises of policy.
Chris Powell is a columnist for the Journal Inquirer in Manchester, Connecticut.