March 14, 2005

New Jersey: Fred Burke

One of the most influential guys I never heard of died last week. Fred Burke was the commissioner of education in NJ under Gov. Brendan Byrne between 1974 and 1980, and a principal architect of New Jersey's most important school funding reforms. This was a critical period for education funding in New Jersey. During his tenure, the legislature grudgingly complied with a court order to adequately fund schools. The lack of state-level taxes to supplement local property taxes was a big factor in the court's decision, and when the state finally balanced the books in 1976, they did it by passing a broad-based personal income tax.

This was pretty much the only option available for NJ: the court required the state to reduce disparities in education spending between poor and wealthy districts, which necessarily meant a big, big infusion of state aid. By all accounts, it was a politically painful process, but finally resulted in a broad-based income tax.

The New York Times has a very nice obit, and some columnist at the Star-Ledger wrote a snarky thing. Not much attention paid to this otherwise.

Back in the day, property taxes were the name of the game for state and local governments. When property values collapsed (and property taxes with them) in the Great Depression, a lot of states enacted state-level sales and income taxes to diversify the tax base. Some (like New Jersey) managed to hobble along with an income tax for a while. Others (like Tennessee) are still avoiding this basic reform even now, in 2005.

The few states that survived without at least one leg of the state tax "three legged stool" ( income tax, sales tax, property tax) for a few decades all started to construct their own mythology around their special tax status after a while. As a result, every state that has enacted an income tax in recent decades (New Jersey and Connecticut are the most recent examples) or that has considered it (Tennessee and New Hampshire) have seen protracted, sometimes violent battles over this proposed change. Opposition to an income tax is so much part of the political culture in New Hampshire that gubernatorial candidates of both parties routinely take "the pledge" not to enact one. Which is why people who canvassed NH during the November 2004 elections probably saw a lot of "No Income Tax" yard signs supporting the Democratic candidate, John Lynch (who ultimately won).

Current headlines make it clear that NJ has not exactly solved the basic problems of tax adequacy and high property taxes that prompted the reforms of the 1970s. But Fred Burke (whose name graces the Abbott v. Burke decisions that helped enshrine an adequate education as a basic New Jersey right) had a lot to do with getting New Jersey started down the long and painful road to an equitable and adequate education system. The state would likely be in a lot worse shape if not for Burke's efforts to achieve school funding adequacy.


At 11:41 AM, Anonymous Carol Sterling said...

Applause to the writer of this article for documenting the importance of equitable funding for public education that my husband, the late Fred G. Burke, championed in New Jersey and beyond. As the child of immigrants and who did not speak English until he went to kindergarten, Fred was especially sensitive to the importance of helping children, particularly those of humble birth such as he, would be ensured the opportunity to realize their potential through public education. The writer's acknowledgement of equitable funding for our children in rural and urban settings also focuses positive attention on another of Fred's legacy: in addition to equal monies for our poorer schools, student accountability as measured by high standards to ensure a literate and well prepared citizenry to meet and achieve the challenges of the 21st century.
Carol Sterling


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