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Editorial | School Tax Referendums

Vote yes for fairer funding of education

How long have Pennsylvania communities talked of getting away from the property tax as the primary method of funding the public schools? Only for about as long as voters have been resisting any and all attempts at proposals that could make tax reform a reality.

Well, it's time to start walking the walk. And tomorrow is the day to do it in the Philadelphia suburbs.

Voters in school districts across the region have a golden opportunity to cast a ballot in favor of shifting more of the school-tax burden to an income-based tax.

The question before primary voters is whether to cut school property taxes by hiking income taxes by as much as 1 percent.

The state's property-tax-relief law enacted in 2006 requires the referendums, which - if approved - are designed to reduce the tax burden on mostly retired, fixed-income homeowners. Down the road, most homeowners will be in line for additional property tax relief when casino revenues are shared around the state. (In Philadelphia, casino funds will help lower the wage tax.)

It's been an article of faith for years that supporting the schools exclusively through real estate taxes hurts older and rural communities, and that it would be fair to shift some of the burden to income taxes. When it comes time to do that, of course, taxpayers are likely to cast their votes based mostly on how the change impacts them directly.

If you're a high-wage earner - and depending on your property tax bill - you might well pay more under a higher school income tax. There's no getting around that.

Renters, as well, will feel the pinch - although, realistically, they're already paying property taxes built into their monthly rents.

But there are sizable numbers of homeowners for whom the transition to higher income taxes will pay off in a noticeable drop in their property taxes.

An Inquirer review of the tax-reduction projections given voters in some area school districts shows that officials have low-balled the likely savings to taxpayers. That feeds skepticism about the referendums. And it's puzzling, since school districts generally would fare better by moving toward income-based revenues.

School income taxes are becoming widespread, so these referendums mostly are about tweaking a tax that already exists.

Broadening the tax base for schools should help stabilize communities. What's more, income levies are fairer, since they are based on the ability to pay. On every tax-policy basis, it makes sense to vote YES on the school tax referendums.