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Property tax cap shifts discussion about costs

In school districts across New York, voters have spoken: The property-tax cap overwhelmingly approved last year by Gov. Andrew M. Cuomo and the Legislature works.

Not only has the cap controlled tax increases, but it has also prompted a major paradigm shift in the conversation over school property taxes. We’ve moved from “How much money can we spend?” to “In a time of limited resources, what programs do we need to ensure school quality?”

Early indications show that voter turnout, usually very low in school budget votes, was marginally better statewide and significantly better in many individual districts. In the Niagara Wheatfield school district, for instance, voters turned out in record numbers to defeat a proposed 9.9 percent tax hike. “There were a great many new voters, and others who hadn’t voted in years,” WIvB-Tv reported.

Opponents warned the cap would fracture communities and spark “undemocratic minority rule,” but in this case, the opposite is true. Budgets passed in record numbers and the cap appears to have spurred greater levels of civic engagement than usual.

All told, 96 percent of school budgets were approved — the second-best approval rate on record, according to the New York State School Boards Association. Just 48 districts attempted to exceed the cap, and 19 of them failed to get the supermajority they needed to do so. Many failed even to win a simple majority.

Of the budgets that stayed within the guidelines of the cap, virtually all of them—99 percent—won approval.

So kudos to Cuomo, the Legislature and school districts for making tough choices to live within their means.

Still, much work remains before we can say that every New York child has access to a great public school, or that every dollar contributes to a better education.

The 2012 State of Public Education Report by the New York Campaign for Achievement Now shows that New York spends about $18,000 per pupil. That’s more than any other state in the country, and well above the national average.

What’s our return on that investment? Less than 75 percent of New York students are graduating from high school on time. That’s a disservice to kids and taxpayers alike.

Closing our staggering achievement gaps will require thoughtful investments grounded in the principles of greater accountability, greater flexibility and greater choices. Students’ interest must trump those of adults.

The property-tax cap is hardly an assaultoneducationspending. Butitisacue to leave behind our malfunctioning statusquoinfavorofsmarter, moreefficient budgeting. And better public schools.

Christina Grant is executive director of the New York Campaign for Achievement Now.