It is October, when the Center on Budget and Policy Priorities (CBPP) updates its report on overall school spending across the states. In this year’s version, released last week, CBPP presents new numbers (in inflation-adjusted dollars) depicting general fund, school-formula funding lagging in 23 states behind what those states were spending in the 2007-2008 school year, just prior to the Great Recession. This is a slight improvement; last year school funding formulas remained below 2008 levels in 25 states. But in a country that relentlessly declares that no child will be left behind and every student will succeed, our rhetoric rings hollow when nearly half the states have reduced basic aid for schools over the past decade.
The Center on Budget and Policy Priorities sums up the state fiscal picture: “States cut K-12 funding—and a range of other areas, including higher education, health care, and human services—as a result of the 2007-2009 recession, which sharply reduced state revenue. Emergency fiscal aid from the federal government prevented even deeper cuts but ran out before the economy recovered, and states chose to address their budget shortfalls disproportionately through spending cuts rather than a more balanced mix of service cuts and revenue increases. Some state have worsened their revenue shortfalls by cutting taxes… And because property values fell sharply after the recession hit, it’s been particularly difficult for local school districts to raise significant additional revenue through local property taxes….”
On average, according to the new report, states provide 47 percent of funding for public schools while local school districts cover 45 percent of the cost. The federal government averages less than 10 percent. Because federal funds pay for services for children whose needs are greatest, cuts in federal funding undermine schools serving the poorest students and shift costs for special needs programming to local school districts’ general funds when federal dollars do not pay for federally required special education programs. According to CBPP, between 2010 and 2016, the federal government reduced the Title I program by 8.3 percent; federal funding for programs under the Individuals with Disability Education Act fell by 6.4 percent (both adjusted for inflation).
CBPP adds: “Most states raised per-pupil general formula funding in the last year, but in most cases those increases weren’t enough to offset earlier cuts. Twenty-eight states raised general funding per student in 2016.” But, “At least 19 states cut per-student funding…. In 12 of these states, the cuts came on top of previous cuts, leaving the state even further below pre-recession levels.” The school funding formula in seven states, Oklahoma, Alabama, Kentucky, Kansas, Arizona, Utah, and Wisconsin is more than 10 percent less than the state was spending in 2008.
Five of the states that cut school formula funding over the decade have also cut state income taxes: Oklahoma, Kansas, Arizona, Wisconsin, and North Carolina. This blog has covered education funding problems in two of these states. Oklahoma stands out; its per-pupil formula funding is down 26.9 percent in inflation-adjusted dollars from what the state was spending in 2008. In the upcoming election, Oklahoma voters will decide on a measure to impose a one-percent sales tax to support the state’s schools. Kansas, where the courts have intervened with a major school funding case, is trapped in a state budget morass following massive income tax cuts in 2012 and 2013 by Governor Sam Brownback and a Republican legislature. There have been reports of a possible revolt by voters in November to reduce Republican super-majorities in both houses of the Kansas legislature.
The annual reports of the Center on Budget and Priorities bring the same news year after year—that states persist in cutting taxes and under-funding their public schools while we argue about standardized testing and accept the rhetoric that we must merely focus on holding the schools accountable or privatizing them. Just over a decade ago, John Dietz, a judge in Texas, took a moment of personal privilege as he announced a school funding decision: “(E)ducation costs money, but ignorance costs more money,” he said. “The key to changing our future is to close the gap in academic achievement between the haves and the have-nots… But the rub is that it costs money…. It doesn’t come free… Our willingness to make the sacrifice depends upon our vision and our leadership… (I)t is the people of Texas who must set the standards, make the sacrifice, and give direction to their leaders… These problems only get more difficult the longer we wait.”