May 2023

The Role of Property Assessment Oversight in School Finance Inequality

Alex Combs, John Foster, Erin Troland


This paper explores an under-studied channel for school finance inequality: property assessment. School districts have historically relied on local tax revenues (typically property taxes) to fund schools, which can generate disparities in funding across districts. Many states passed school finance reforms that give more state funding to poorer districts. These formulas typically discourage school districts from offsetting state funding by reducing local tax rates ("crowd out"). However, many reforms have not adequately addressed another source of inequality: property assessment accuracy and equity. Moreover, state reform can unintentionally subsidize property underassessment. We analyze a state government intervention to address property assessment inequities within and across school districts. We use difference-in-differences and county- and school district-level administrative data to find the intervention boosted assessments by 32 percent. Assessment equity improved substantially and local property revenues temporarily increased by 17 percent. Local fiscal and institutional capacity played a role in assessment inequity pre-reform. Our results suggest that underassessment can compound funding inequality across districts in states that rely on property wealth to fund schools. Therefore, effective state oversight in property assessments is needed to ensure the integrity of funding systems that distribute state funding to districts on the basis of their assessed property wealth.

Keywords: Property assessment, school finance reform, inequality


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Last Update: May 05, 2023