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“Theoretically All Children Are Equal. Practically This Can Never Be So”: The History of the District Property Tax in California and the Choice of Inequality

by Matthew Gardner Kelly - 2020

Background/Context: Dealing mostly in aggregate statistics that mask important regional variations, scholars often assume that district property taxation and the resource disparities this approach to school funding creates are deeply rooted in the history of American education.

Purpose/Objective/Research Question/Focus of Study: This article explores the history of district property taxation and school funding disparities in California during the 19th and 20th centuries. First, the article documents the limited use of district property taxation for school funding in California and several other Western states during the 19th century, showing that the development of school finance was more complicated than standard accounts suggest. Then, the article examines how a coalition of experts, activists, and politicians worked together during the early 20th century to promote district property taxation and institutionalize the idea that the wealth of local communities, rather than the wealth of the entire state, should determine the resources available for public schooling.

Research Design: This article draws on primary source documents from state and regional archives, including district-level funding data from nine Northern California counties, to complete a historical analysis.

Conclusions/Recommendations: The history of California’s district property tax suggests the need for continued research on long-term trends in school finance and educational inequality. Popular accounts minimizing the historical role of state governments in school funding obscure how public policies, not just market forces shaping property values, create funding inequalities. In turn, these accounts communicate powerful messages about the supposed inevitability of funding disparities and the responsibility of state governments to correct them. Through increased attention to long-term trends in school funding, scholars can help popular commentators and policymakers avoid assumptions that naturalize inequality and narrow the possibilities for future funding reforms.

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Cite This Article as: Teachers College Record Volume 122 Number 2, 2020, p. 1-32
https://www.tcrecord.org ID Number: 23023, Date Accessed: 9/19/2021 1:02:43 PM

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About the Author
  • Matthew Kelly
    Pennsylvania State University
    E-mail Author
    MATTHEW GARDNER KELLY is an Assistant Professor in the Department of Education Policy Studies at Pennsylvania State University. His research examines the history of school finance and governance, the political dimensions of educational funding policies, and the impact of resource disparities on American public education.
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