If you really think about it, you might find it surprising that in Tuesday night’s Vice Presidential debate neither candidate for Vice President of the United States spent any time really talking about many of the issues that affect us all from day to day. Although they strongly disagree, both Tim Kaine, Virginia’s U.S. senator and former governor, and Mike Pence, Indiana’s current governor, care deeply about education, which is surely among the everyday matters of concern for America’s citizens. Mike Pence has been a strong promoter in his state of the preferred educational policies of the American Legislative Exchange Council, ALEC, and Tim Kaine’s wife was, until the current campaign got underway, the state superintendent of education in Virginia.
However bizarre the campaign for President is this year, you will likely find it reassuring to be reminded that in some places the voters are paying attention to the condition of their public schools. On Tuesday evening, just before the Vice Presidential debate, for example, the PBS NewsHour aired a story about forty teachers in Oklahoma who have chosen to run this fall for positions in the Oklahoma state legislature. Reporter Lisa Stark explains: “Oklahoma schools have already lost a lot. The state ranks 47 out of 50 in per-pupil spending. And since 2008, the legislature has cut spending per student by 24 percent, the largest drop in the nation, leading to teacher layoffs, overcrowded classrooms. More than 100 districts have approved four-day school weeks.”
Stark interviews Oklahoma’s teacher of the year who is running for state senate, along with other candidates—a recently retired 35-year special education teacher, and a high school English teacher recently laid off in budget cuts. They are running for office based on their personal experience in the state’s under-funded schools. Stark also speaks with David Boren, former U.S. senator and Oklahoma governor and now president of the University of Oklahoma: “We’re headed for dead last in what we spend in the nation among all the states on the education of our students, and we’re losing our best and brightest teachers to all the states that surround us, because they pay so much more in their salaries, every single one of them. So, we’re at a crossroads.” Boren supports a ballot measure to raise the sales tax by one percent for education and boost annual teacher salaries by $5,000: “It’s not a perfect solution, but we can’t sit here and wait. Are we going to wait until we have 100,000 students in classrooms with no teachers, qualified teachers? Are we going to go to three-day school weeks?”
And on Tuesday, the day of the Vice Presidential debate, Chalkbeat NY reported: “More than 20 parents, students and educators are marching 150 miles from New York City to Albany to demand the state pay billions of dollars they say New York’s schools are owed under the terms of the 2006 settlement (in the school funding case of Campaign for Fiscal Equity v. New York). The suit argued that the state needed to increase education funding in needy school districts in order to provide all students with a sound basic education. But after the recession hit, the will to funnel billions more into schools waned.” Supporters of New York’s Alliance for Quality Education, the sponsor of the march to Albany, are hopeful that progress can be made to press New York’s legislature to fund what the court called “a sound, basic education.”
To mark the 10th anniversary of New York’s school funding decision, the Alliance for Quality Education also released a new report that declares: “2016 marks ten years since New York State was found in violation of its constitutional obligation to provide ‘a sound basic education’ to each student in the state… Ten years later there are still schools across the state that offer limited access to art and music, or to sequences of Advanced Placement courses or other electives. Some schools have classes with 30 or even 40 students. Some schools do not have enough teachers or support staff. Schools have guidance counselor to student ratios as high as 1 to 800 while the recommended ratio is 1 to 250.” The state created the Foundation Aid formula as part of the Campaign for Fiscal Equity settlement but it has never been fully funded. The Alliance for Quality Education explains that in the current year’s budget, the state assembly included a multi-year plan fully to fund Foundation Aid, but the governor and senate balked. This week marchers from New York City to Albany continue to press the legislature to fulfill its commitment: “The Governor and the Senate Majority should join the Assembly and commit to fully funding CFE. The 2017-18 state budget must provide $3.9 billion in Foundation Aid over two years. Such commitment must include funding the Foundation Aid formula at $1.95 billion each year. The Foundation Aid formula must also be revised to reflect current data and poverty level of each district.”
Then there is Kansas, where a task force appointed by Governor Sam Brownback has just proposed eliminating monthly reports that compare tax collections with projections. The Associated Press‘s John Hanna explains: “Kansas has struggled to meet revenue targets and balance its budget since GOP legislators slashed personal income taxes in 2012 and 2013 at Brownback’s urging as an economic stimulus. Tax collections were nearly $45 million less than anticipated in September and fell short of expectations for 32 of the 45 months—71 percent of the time—since the first tax cuts took effect. For at least several decades, monthly comparisons of tax collections against projections have indicated how the state’s budget is faring. But the term-limited governor’s fiscal policies are a major issue in legislative races, and the reports have been a regular dose of bad news ahead of the November election.”
While Governor Brownback and his allies seem to want to hide the bad news, the voters in Kansas seem to be paying attention, partly due to a long slide in funding for public schools. Hanna reports: “The governor is term-limited, but his political allies face a potential backlash. Fourteen GOP conservatives lost their seats in the August primary, and Democrats hope to cut into Republican supermajorities in both chambers in the Nov. 8 election. If they do, they and GOP moderates could form governing coalitions that attempt to roll back key Brownback tax policies.”
It is worth paying attention to these nuts-and-bolts political stories that are not making the headlines in this fraught political season.