Writing for the NY Times, Josh Barro points out: “Kansas has a problem. In April and May, the state planned to collect $651 million from personal income tax. But instead it received only $369 million.” Kansas is one of the states where spending for public education has fallen recently due to tax cutting by its governor and legislators. According to Barro, part of the problem is the way Kansas restructured income taxes for small businesses. It seems the tax cuts are turning out to be bigger than their designers expected. Some now worry that the result will be catastrophic: “Yes, if you cut taxes, you get less revenue,” writes Barro, who adds: “As revenue comes in over the next few months, Kansas will learn just how big of a tax cut it’s given out in the name of small business, and what it will have to do to the rest of the state budget to make the tax cut affordable.”
Despite widespread evidence to the contrary in places like Ohio, where I live, many believe tax cuts are essential for driving a state’s economic growth. About Kansas, Paul Krugman wrote yesterday: “But Kansas isn’t booming — in fact, its economy is lagging both neighboring states and America as a whole. Meanwhile, the state’s budget has plunged deep into deficit, provoking a Moody’s downgrade of its debt.”
Another measure of a state’s strength is the quality of its investment in the education of children and adolescents. In fact tax cuts, added to the lingering effects of the 2008 recession, are one of the reasons why the Center on Budget and Policy Priorities can report that 35 states are now spending less on public education than back in 2007 before the recession. If a state needs to cut expenditures (after tax cuts reduce revenue), the quickest place to go is the biggest line in most state budgets: public education. Schooling is a big investment because of the sheer size of the endeavor; across the 50 states our society educates 50 million students in public schools.
One state that has cut taxes in recent years is Pennsylvania, with dire consequences for the School District of Philadelphia—the state’s largest school district. According to Reid Wilson of the Washington Post, who has described Governor Tom Corbett’s tax cuts: “All told, Corbett has signed legislation cutting taxes on businesses by about $1.2 billion since taking office.” Three simultaneous changes to Philadelphia state school funding have accompanied the tax cuts and created a crisis in Philadelphia’s public schools: (1) In 2011, Pennsylvania cut $1 billion from K-12 and higher education; (2) at the same time Pennsylvania abandoned its per-pupil school funding distribution formula; and (3) Pennsylvania made local school districts responsible for funding the charters their students attend. The result has been, according to a recent post on this blog, catastrophic for the School District of Philadelphia.
Last Friday, 150 pf Pennsylvania’s college and university professors sent An Open Letter to Members of the Pennsylvania General Assembly, a stunning document that demands better funding not for their own institutions but instead to address the ongoing catastrophe in Philadelphia, whose funding sources for next fall’s school opening had not yet been determined three days prior to the June 30 state budget deadline. The college teachers write about the desperate need for basic services for students in Philadelphia—honors and AP courses, sports programs (that would make later college athletic scholarships available to these students), enough college counselors to help high school students file college applications (Some high schools in Philadelphia have lacked any counselors after massive school closures and staff cuts at the end of last school year.), and full curricular offerings and quality high school programs to reduce the need for so much remedial education at the college level.
In their letter, the college faculty members make a strong case for very modest state tax increases—a shale gas extraction tax, a statewide sin tax on cigarettes, and authorizing legislation for Philadelphia itself to impose a $2 tax on a pack of cigarettes. But, as reported by the Harrisburg Patriot-News, the legislature, agreeing on a budget just before last night’s midnight deadline, did not oblige by increasing any taxes; nor did legislators enact any new taxes statewide. Legislators threatened—as the price for authorizing legislation to allow the city of Philadelphia itself to add a local $2 cigarette tax—that the Philadelphia delegation to the state House of Representatives (including Democrats) would have to support a GOP-sponsored pension reform plan for the state. However, Philadelphia must still wait to see if, as apparently agreed, member of the General Assembly will pass—within a couple of days and outside the budget—the enabling legislation for the city to add its $2 cigarette tax. Whether Governor Corbett will sign the budget is also in question; he threatens a veto because the House omitted pension cuts in the budget bill that was passed.
Philadelphia Mayor Michael Nutter “decried the coupling of pensions and school funding, comparing the treatment of Philadelphia’s schoolchildren to that of damsels in distress in the silent movies. ‘It is a sad day in public service that we find children being held on the railroad tracks awaiting some rescue to come from somewhere that has nothing to do with them.'”
The very substantive plea of 150 Philadelphia-area college professors fell on deaf ears in Harrisburg. Their letter goes to the heart of how school budgets need to work: “Finally, it is crucial that increases in the public education budget not be directed into one-time grants that bi-pass classrooms in dire need. We must ensure that these critical funds are put into essential school staffing and programming for students who are in desperate need of support. Therefore, we also suggest that the legislature allocate any revenues generated for K-12 public education directly towards the Basic Education Subsidy, as well as towards the reinstatement of the (state) charter reimbursement payments to school districts.” The budget as passed adds some for education, though the basic subsidy is flat-funded and the overall education allocation is less than in the 2010-2011 school year.
Ironically, according to Kevin McCorry writing for Newsworks, “In 2006, under Gov. Ed Rendell, the… Legislature analyzed the state’s method for distributing education funds in a ‘costing-out study’ and in 2008, implemented the type of formula being requested by these college teachers. This formula not only provided a mechanism for allocating state resources, but operated on the premise that funding levels should be raised to meet the actual cost of educating all students to the state’s standards. In 2011, faced with Great Recession-era revenue, the newly elected Corbett scrapped that formula.”
How is it that the very real, well-documented needs of a big city school district are being ignored by a legislature in one of our largest Northeastern industrial states. One explanation is that in states like Pennsylvania and my state Ohio and Illinois, the legislature has become dominated by representatives of the suburbs and rural areas, representatives who lack sympathy for the challenges in big city schools where poverty is concentrated.
Another way to look at our current school “reform” politics is as the result of a test-and-punish school policy, set in place in 2002 by the federal testing law No Child Left Behind, that castigates the schools in our poorest cities where poverty is concentrated as “failing” schools. It has come to be widely accepted that these so-called “low performing” urban schools must be shaped up not through the kind of investment the rest of us take for granted, but instead by punishing them and their teachers for failure. The editorial board of the Rethinking Schools magazine has decried this sort of thinking by declaring that a school reform system based on ranking schools by high stakes tests disguises class and race-based privilege as merit. Wealthy and homogeneous suburban school districts—able to fund themselves by taxing their own property wealth—thrive, while schools in big cities are closed and privatized at the same time they are being starved of funds by their state legislatures.