State Cuts to Education Funding Demonstrate Impact of National, Far-Right Tax-Slashing Agenda

Emma Brown’s recent Washington Post report about four-day school weeks in Oklahoma provides the textbook example of the political phenomenon described by Gordon Lafer in his new book, The One Percent Solution: How Corporations Are Remaking America One State at a Time (Cornell University Press, 2017).

Here is Emma Brown: “A deepening budget crisis here has forced schools across the Sooner State to make painful decisions. Class sizes have ballooned, art and foreign-language programs have shrunk or disappeared, and with no money for new textbooks, children go without. Perhaps the most significant consequence: Students in scores of districts are now going to school just four days a week… Of 513 school districts in Oklahoma, 96 have lopped Fridays or Mondays off their schedules, nearly triple the number in 2015 and four times as many as in 2013. An additional 44 are considering cutting instructional days by moving to a four-day week in the fall….”

Gordon Lafer explains that in the November 2010 election, “Eleven state governments switched from Democratic or divided control to unified Republican control of the governorship and both houses of the legislature. Since these lawmakers took office in early 2011, the United States has seen an unprecedented wave of legislation aimed at lowering labor standards and slashing public services.” (p. 2) “In January 2011, legislatures across the country took office under a unique set of circumstances. In many states, new majorities rode to power on the energy of the Tea Party ‘wave’ election and the corporate-backed RedMap campaign…  (T)his was the first class of legislators elected under post-Citizens United campaign finance rules, and the sudden influence of unlimited money in politics was felt across the country. Finally, the 2011 legislative sessions opened in the midst of record budget deficits (from the Great Recession), creating an atmosphere of fiscal crisis that made it politically feasible to undertake more dramatic legislation than might otherwise have been possible… For the corporate lobbies and their legislative allies, the 2010 elections created a strategic opportunity to restructure labor relations, political power, and the size of government.” (p 44)

Oklahoma was one of the eleven states that turned all-Red in 2011; the others were Maine, Pennsylvania, Ohio, Michigan, Indiana, Wisconsin, Kansas, Tennessee, Alabama, and Wyoming.  Today, after the 2016 election, the number of all-Red states has reached 25.  And, while it might seem to the residents of any one of these states that a climate of tax slashing, union bashing, and cutting public services reflects some kind of new trend among their voters, a more intentional national strategy is instead pushing the agenda into their state from the outside. Lafer explains: “Former Speaker of the House Tip O’Neill once famously quipped that ‘all politics is local’—suggesting that even members of Congress are ultimately elected on the basis of their reputation for solving local problems. The past few years, however, have stood this axiom on its head. Local politics have become nationalized with state legislation written by lobbyists representing national and multinational corporations… In fact, lawmakers… (have been) enacting the agenda of national corporate interests that had spent years preparing for just such a moment.” (p. 49)

Lafer continues: “Political science traditionally views policy initiatives as emerging from either reasoned evaluation of what has worked to address a given social problem, or a strategic response to public opinion. But the corporate agenda for education reform is neither. Its initiatives are not the product of education scholars and often have little or no evidentiary basis to support them. They are also broadly unpopular… In this sense, education policy… provides an instructive window into the ability of corporate lobbies to move an extremely broad and ambitious agenda that is supported neither by social scientific evidence nor by the popular will.” (p. 130)

Who are the corporate lobbies crafting and pushing the anti-tax, union-bashing, anti-public education agenda? “Almost all of these initiatives reflect ALEC (the American Legislative Exchange Council) model legislation, and have been championed by the Chamber of Commerce, Americans for Prosperity, and a wide range of allied corporate lobbies.” (p. 130)  “Furthermore, the corporate agenda is carried out through an integrated network that operates on multiple channels at once: funding ALEC to write bills, craft legislative talking points, and provide a meeting place for legislators and lobbyists to build relationships; supporting local think tanks in the ALEC-affiliated State Policy Network to produce white papers, legislative testimony, opinion columns, and media experts; contributing to candidate campaigns and party committees; making independent expenditures on behalf of lawmakers or issues; and deploying field organizers to key legislative districts.” (p. 39)

A primary strategy is tax cutting: “‘The best way to stimulate the economy,’ insisted a senior fellow at the Koch-funded Cato Institute, is ‘to shrink government… lower marginal tax rates, and streamline regulations.’  The corporate right’s exhortations for an unprecedented policy of cutting taxes and services in the midst of recession was not an evidence-based policy and indeed did not yield the economic growth its proponents forecast… There was no reason to believe that tax cuts were the key to economic recovery.  However continuing tax cuts achieved something else; they dramatically—and perhaps permanently—shrank the size of government.” (p. 65)

How has all this affected public education?  “(B)udget cuts were particularly widespread—and particularly devastating—in the country’s school systems. In 2010-11, 70 percent of all U.S. school districts made cuts to essential services. Despite widespread evidence of the academic and economic value of preschool education, twelve states cut pre-K funding that year, including Arizona, which eliminated it completely. Ohio repealed full-day kindergarten and cut its preschool program to the point that it served 75 percent fewer four-year-olds than it had a decade earlier. Pennsylvania also cut back from full-day to half-day kindergarten in many districts—including Philadelphia, which also eliminated 40 percent of its teaching staff…. More than half the nation’s school districts changed their thermostat settings…. Research shows that the availability of trained librarians makes a significant improvement in student reading and writing skills, yet by 2014, one-third of public schools in the country lacked a full-time certified librarian.” (p. 69)

Lafer explores the reasons far-right tax-slashers have attacked public education, including all the money to be made by privatizing large parts of our nation’s biggest and most pervasive civic institution, in which, “the sums involved… are an order of magnitude larger than any other service.” (p. 129) But he believes another motive of the privatizers is far more significant: “Finally, the notion that one’s kids have a right to a decent education represents the most substantive right to which Americans believe we are entitled, simply by dint of residence. In this sense… for those interested in lowering citizens’ expectations of what we have a right to demand from government, there is no more central fight than that around public education.” (p. 129)

Which brings us back to Emma Brown’s recent piece in the Washington Post about Oklahoma, where parents and teachers are getting used to a reduced school week only four days long: “Oklahoma stands out for the velocity with which districts have turned to a shorter school week in the past several years, one of the most visible signs of a budget crisis that has also shuttered rural hospitals, led to overcrowded prisons and forced state troopers to abide by a 100-mile daily driving limit. Democrats helped pass bipartisan income tax cuts from 2004-2008. Republicans—who have controlled the legislature since 2009 and the governorship since 2011—have cut income taxes further and also significantly lowered taxes on oil and gas production… Facing a $900 million budget gap, lawmakers approved a budget (last) Friday that will effectively hold school funding flat in the next year. In Washington, President Trump has proposed significant education cuts that would further strain local budgets… Oklahoma’s education spending has decreased 14 percent per child since 2008…. Oklahoma has not raised teachers’ salaries since 2008, and the average salary in 2013—$44,128—put the state at 49th in the nation…. Teachers are leaving in droves for better-paying jobs across state lines…. And the number of positions filled by emergency-certified teachers—who have no education training… is now 35 times as high as it was in 2011.”

This week Valerie Strauss published  a reflection by an Oklahoma school teacher, a companion piece to Emma Brown’s report.  Shawn Sheehan is the 2016 Oklahoma Teacher of the Year. At the end of this school year, he is leaving his position at Norman High School to take a job in Texas. His wife is also leaving her position in a Norman, Oklahoma school to accept a Texas teaching position. Sheehan explains: “(A)t the end of the day, the simple truth is that we can be paid a respectable wage for doing the same job—this job we love very much—by heading out of state… We could stay, but it would cost our family—specifically our sweet baby girl… We, like you, want what’s best for our children and she deserves to grow up in a state that values education. And so do your children.”

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5 thoughts on “State Cuts to Education Funding Demonstrate Impact of National, Far-Right Tax-Slashing Agenda

  1. ALEC is like a cancer in the bloodstream, going about its deadly work, undetected by the body until it’s too late to avoid dying!

  2. Pingback: Jan Resseger: Meet the National Lobbyists Who Have Pushed a Far-Right Wing Agenda into the States | Diane Ravitch's blog

  3. This is one of the scariest and best-explained articles about what is really happening in our country which I’ve read: Ditto the comment above by Rick Johnson — “ALEC is like a cancer in the bloodstream, going about its deadly work, undetected by the body until it’s too late to avoid dying!”

  4. Pingback: Take No Prisoners | Restore Reason

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