Tax Cuts Part I: What State Tax Cuts Mean for K-12 Public Education

Professor of school law, Derek Black writes: “School funding formulas are one of the most arcane and obscure elements of public policy one can imagine.”  Maybe that’s why most of us lose a sense of the connection of the money to the particulars of what it pays for. When the state cuts school funding—unless our own children lose a teacher, or we see their classes grow over 35 children, or their school loses the counselor or the nurse or the librarian—we aren’t likely to pay attention.

And then there are the totally invisible costs. In a report last summer for In the Public Interest, the political economist Gordon Lafer explains  some of these invisible costs a public school system is required provide in order to serve the community and meet the needs of each of the children—things that a charter school or even charter school chain (which serves a very limited population of children) doesn’t have to worry about: “If, for instance, a given school loses five percent of its student body (to charter schools)—and that loss is spread across multiple grade levels, the school may be unable to lay off even a single teacher… Plus, the costs of maintaining school buildings cannot be reduced…. Unless the enrollment falloff is so steep as to force school closures, the expense of heating and cooling schools, running cafeterias, maintaining digital and wireless technologies, and paving parking lots—all of this is unchanged by modest declines in enrollment. In addition, both individual schools and school districts bear significant administrative responsibilities that cannot be cut in response to falling enrollment. These include planning bus routes and operating transportation systems; developing and auditing budgets; managing teacher training and employee benefits; applying for grants and certifying compliance with federal and state regulations; and the everyday work of principals, librarians and guidance counselors.”

Across many states in the past decade, however, especially after the 2008 Great Recession, followed by the Tea Party red-wave, 2010 election, politicians in many states have assumed they could cut taxes—thereby curtailing the revenue stream flowing to the state—without its affecting what is the largest financial outlay in any state—the education budget.

Last spring, a wave of walkouts by schoolteachers, in West Virginia, Oklahoma, Arizona, Kentucky and several other states, drew the nation’s attention to the catastrophic consequences of slashing taxes and cutting into state education budgets.  But now in mid-September, we find ourselves barraged by pre-election personal attack ads on television and mired in the scandal-ridden sensationalism of the Trump White House. Two posts on this blog—today and tomorrow—will review two of the consequences for education of the fiscal crisis in state budgets that schoolteachers brought to our attention last spring.

The first thing we learned last spring is that school teachers across many states are no longer being paid salaries that are comparable to peers in other professions with the same level of education. Many—16 percent according to a recent NY Times Magazine profile —are working second jobs to try to make ends meet.  The report notes: “Teachers across the country are now baristas, Amazon warehouse employees, movie-theater managers and fast-food grill cooks.  They’re entering the gig economy in off hours….”  The report features the employment statistics of eight teachers living in a range of states.

In a recent cover story, Time Magazine also tracks teachers’ salaries and explains: “Nationwide, the estimated average public-school teacher’s salary is now $58,950, according to the National Center for Education Statistics—a respectable income in many locales, but actual wages vary widely by state, and often do not track with costs of living. When compared with similar educational levels, teacher pay tends to pale. In 2016, for instance, the average teacher’s starting salary was $38,617—20% lower than that of other professions requiring a college degree.” Time’s reporter, Katie Reilly interviews and profiles 13 teachers who are working second jobs.

How serious is the teacher pay gap?  In a September 5, 2018 report, the Economic Policy Institute’s Sylvia Allegretto and Lawrence Mishel explain: “Average weekly wages of public school teachers (adjusted for inflation) decreased $27 from 1996 to 2017, from $1,164 to $1,137 (in 2017 dollars).  In contrast, weekly wages of other college graduates rose from $1,339 to $1,476 over this period.”

What teachers showed us last spring is that many states have drastically slashed public education spending. Allegretto and Mishel report that today, ten years after states have had the chance to recover from the Great Recession: “The erosion of teacher pay relative to that of comparable workers in the last couple of years—and in fact since 2008—reflects state policy decisions rather than the result of revenue challenges brought on by the Great Recession…. In fact, eight of the 10 states with the largest reductions in education funding since 2008 were states that had reduced their overall ‘tax effort’—meaning through tax cuts or other measures they were collecting less in taxes relative to their capacity to generate tax revenue. These eight states were Alabama, Arizona, Florida, Georgia, Idaho, Kansas, Oklahoma, and Virginia.” “These spending cuts are not the result of weak state economies. Rather, state legislatures have enacted them to finance tax cuts for the wealthy and corporations.”

And we learn from Michael Leachman, Senior Director of State Fiscal Research at the Center on Budget and Policy Priorities, that after teachers walked out last spring, and after governors and legislators in two of the states promised significant salary increases, the money for the promised raises may be a mirage: “Arizona and Oklahoma teachers both secured pay increases this spring after major teacher protests, but both states need more revenues to sustainably fund the promised increases and reverse past cuts.”  “In Arizona, the current budget includes a 20 percent increase for teachers over three years but doesn’t include enough new revenue to pay for it, relying instead on optimistic predictions of economic growth… 0klahoma lawmakers raised $530 million in new revenue this spring to fund K-12 education, the first time the state had raised any taxes in more than 25 years. But this was still less than the new spending lawmakers approved to support teachers and classrooms.  And the new funding for school operations makes up less than one-third of the funding cut since 2008, even before accounting for higher enrollment and costs.”

There are always arguments that teachers end their workdays earlier than office workers and that teachers get summers off. There are also arguments that teachers’ benefits make up for low pay, although Allegretto and Mishel counter that argument.  When wages and benefits are combined, they explain, “The total compensation (wage and benefit) penalty for public school teachers grew from 10.5 percent to 11.1 percent in 2017.”

Allegretto and Mishel remind us that as a society, it is in our best interest to make the education profession desirable at a time when the flow of candidates entering the nation’s education pipeline has slowed to a trickle: “To ensure a high-quality teaching workforce, schools must retain experienced teachers and recruit high-quality students into the profession. Pay is an important component of retention and recruitment.”

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3 thoughts on “Tax Cuts Part I: What State Tax Cuts Mean for K-12 Public Education

  1. Pingback: Tax Cuts Part II: What State Tax Cuts Mean for Public Higher Education | janresseger

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