“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

Matthew Gardner Kelly:

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.

Locally, Madison taxpayers have long spent far more than most K-12 school districts, while tolerating disastrous reading results.