The new report from the American Federation of Teachers (AFT), A Decade of Neglect, is one of the most lucid explanations I’ve read about the deplorable fiscal conditions for public schools across the states. It explains the precipitous drop in school funding caused by the Great Recession, temporarily ameliorated in 2009 by an infusion of funds from the federal stimulus (a financial boost that disappeared after a couple of years), compounded by tax cutting and austerity budgeting across many states, and further compounded by schemes to drain education dollars to privatized charter and voucher programs all out of the same budget.
The report delineates the conditions tangled together over the decade: “While some states are better off than most, in states where spending on education was less in 2016 than it was before the recession, our public schools remain nearly $19 billion short of the annual funding they received in 2008, after adjusting for changes in the consumer price index… The recession ran from December 2007 through June 2009 and prompted a crisis setting off a chain of actions that resulted in significant budget cutting by our state governments. When the recession hit, it devastated state budgets. Job losses, lower wages, the crash in housing prices and the panic in the financial markets all worked to lower state tax revenues, while the demand for government services in the form of unemployment benefits, the Supplemental Nutrition Assistance Program, and housing and Medicaid assistance drove up expenditures. The Brookings Institution estimated that by the second quarter of 2009, income tax collections were 27 percent below their prior-year levels, and total state taxes were 17 percent lower… The Organization for Economic Cooperation and Development’s annual report of education indicators recently found that U.S. spending on elementary and high school education declined more than 4 percent from 2010-2014…. Over this same period, education spending on average, rose 5 percent per student across the 35 countries in the OECD.”
Many states also adopted an ideology promising that tax cuts would bring the economy back. Sam Brownback’s Kansas experiment in supply side economics, however, exemplifies the failure to confirm these hopes. In Kansas the economy didn’t improve and state revenues collapsed. Only in the past two years has the legislature there raised taxes—beginning an effort to undo the damage. Overall, according to AFT’s report: “In 2016, 25 states were still providing less funding for K-12 schools than before the recession, after adjusting for inflation… Eighteen of the 25 states that provided less funding for k-12 education reduced their tax effort between 2008 and 2015.” The eight states that cut taxes most deeply were: Alabama, Arizona, Florida, Georgia, Idaho, Kansas, Oklahoma, and Virginia. And, “In 38 states, the average teacher salary in 2018 is lower than it was in 2009 in real terms… According to the Economic Policy Institute, teacher pay fell by $30 per week from 1996-2015, while pay for other college graduates increased by $124. The gap between teachers and other college graduates has continued to widen and deep cuts in school funding leave states unable to invest in their state’s teacher workforce… In 35 states, between 2008 and 2016, the ratio of students to teachers grew.”
Here is an example of the result: “(W)hile some states are doing better than others, no state is really doing well enough. California is a leader on many of the measures used in this report. But there are less than one tenth the number of school librarians as is recommended. Most school districts don’t have a nurse and there are only about a quarter of the recommended number of school counselors.”
One result is growing inequity: “Our system is upside down. The Education Trust finds that districts with the highest poverty are able to spend $1,000 less per pupil than the districts that are the wealthiest.. (T)he school districts ‘serving the largest populations of Black, Latino, or American Indian students receive roughly $1,800, or 13 percent, less per student in state and local funding than those serving the fewest students of color.’ Research from the Education Law Center and Rutgers University similarly finds that there are only 20 states which, on average, devote more resources to high poverty districts than districts without poverty. Only seven states provide ten percent or more.”
Schemes to add marketplace school choice, at public expense, financially burden the public school districts where choice is expanded: “(W)hen money leaves a public school because a student has enrolled in a different system, it is difficult for that school to cut services without affecting the programs for students who remain… Second, (charter and voucher) schools can react to incentives in the marketplace and the school finance system by configuring their programs to encourage or discourage certain enrollment. To the extent that the traditional public school system is expected to accept all children, districts disproportionately bear the costs of these shifts. For example, we know that charter schools tend to enroll fewer high-cost special education students than traditional public schools… Moody’s Investors Service, the bond rating agency, found that not only do charter schools tend to proliferate in areas where school districts already are under economic and demographic stress, but that charter schools tend to ‘pull students and revenues away from districts faster than the districts can reduce their costs.'”
The new report is extensive and organized to make it readily searchable, state by state. It also explores states’ diminishing investment in their colleges and universities.
What the report cannot answer is why our society has permitted such a significant drop in our financial commitment to educating our children. Have we lost track of the importance of education funding overall as revenue has dropped across the states and as other services, also suffering from lack of funding—health care, social services and housing support programs—compete for scarce funding? As the students attending public schools are increasingly poor, Black, and Hispanic, and as the wealthy have increasingly isolated themselves in exclusive enclaves which can fund their schools with ample local tax dollars, have we stopped caring as much about our responsibility to the millions of children and adolescents enrolled in the public schools of poorer communities? The report paints a worrisome financial picture. What it suggests about our values and perhaps our diminishing sense of public obligation is deeply troubling.