One of the ways we attribute meaning to what we see is through stories. Here is the story of my school district. We are among the top districts in Ohio in the local school property taxes we have voted. But our district was forced to cut teachers and programs this year, and the teachers almost went on strike because of threatened cuts to their health care benefits despite that, in November, we passed yet another local school property tax operating levy. When my children were in elementary school in the 1980s and early 1990s, each school had a nurse and each school had a certified librarian, but now schools share nurses and the libraries are staffed by aides. Looking at this situation from a purely local point of view, many people in my community interpret these facts in a way that blames the district for mismanagement or salaries that are too high, or both.
But a new report from The Education Law Center insists that citizens must expand their understanding of funding public schools beyond the local story: “The political dynamics in state capitols have profound implications for the level and distribution of school funding. Nationally, state sources (mainly sales and income tax) provide 47%, and local sources (overwhelmingly from property taxes) provide 45% of the revenue to support public schools. The federal government contributes the remaining 8%. When state governments allow tax revenues to decline or remain stagnant, public schools, which states are legally obligated to maintain and support, pay the price. Elementary and secondary education on average accounts for 36% of states’ general fund spending, the most of any state government services.”
The Education Law Center’s new report, $600 Billion Lost: State Disinvestment in Education Following the Great Recession, sets the financial crisis in my school district and a mass of other school districts in a much clearer context. The Education Law Center blames state policy over more than a decade as the primary cause of our dilemma. I already had some understanding of the current fiscal problems for the nation’s public schools because, for years, I have been reading reports on this topic from the Center on Budget and Policy Priorities (see this example). But the new report is short, up to date, readable, and extremely important for clarifying the fiscal reality for public school districts a decade after the Great Recession and as the result of the fiscal conservatism of too many Tea Party-dominated state legislatures.
If you look merely at your own school district’s finances or even merely at where your own state stands with regard to funding public education, you are missing the larger landscape according to the Education Law Center: “In the decade following the Great Recession, students across the U.S. lost nearly $600 billion from the states’ disinvestment in their public schools. Data from 2008-2018 show that, if states had simply maintained their fiscal effort at PK-12 education at pre-Recession levels, public schools would have had over half a trillion dollars more in state and local revenue to provide teachers, support staff and other resources essential for student achievement. Further, that lost revenue could have significantly improved opportunity and outcomes for students especially in the nation’s poorest districts.”
The report emphasizes that, even after states recovered from collapsed tax revenues caused by the Great Recession, too many state legislatures did not prioritize helping school districts recover: “Yet as economies rebounded, states failed to restore those investments. As our analysis shows, while states’ economic activity—measured as Gross Domestic Product (GDP)—recovered, state and local revenues for public schools lagged far behind in many states. This ‘lost decade’ of state disinvestment has put public schools in an extremely vulnerable position as the nation confronts the coronavirus pandemic.”
The Education Law Center has created an index of “tax effort” that measures each state’s economic capacity to fund public schools against the educational investment the state actually makes.” Only four states, Wyoming, Illinois, Connecticut, and Alaska have raised their commitment to public education as measured by the Education Law Center’s tax effort index.
What about the rest of the states? “In some states the disinvestment was dramatic. In 2018, the effort in Arizona, Florida, and Michigan was more than 25% below 2008 levels. Nearly half of the states had an effort index that was at least 10% lower than in 2008. High and low effort states alike reduced their effort. Michigan and Ohio were ranked highly in effort in 2008—3rd and 7th, respectively—but significant reductions dropped these states to 16th and 21st by 2018.” Bar graphs in the report trace the trajectory of each state’s K-12 public education investment.
The Education Law Center challenges state legislatures to counter the effects of the current COVID-19 recession by increasing state taxes: “The ability of states to withstand the impact of revenue losses from the pandemic hinge on enacting and sustaining progressive tax policies… Progressive tax campaigns are building in states across the country. These campaigns typically propose raising income taxes on the wealthy… and dedicating those increased revenues for education and other social services.”
Unfortunately, in Ohio, where I live, the legislature seems committed to expanding school choice instead. The Ohio Senate killed a progressive new public school finance plan in December, and at the same time has insisted on expanding school privatization. The legislature just revised and continues to expand its EdChoice Vouchers, which suck money for private school tuition directly out of local school district budgets through something called the school district deduction.
The Ohio Legislature also supports a large and well funded charter school sector. In his new book, Schoolhouse Burning, Derek Black examines the school finance implications of the expansion of school privatization at public expense during the same decade the Education Law Center describes the states’ failure to invest in public education. Black examines, for example, the growth of charter schools in Ohio:
“While states were reducing their financial commitment to public schools, they were pumping enormous new resources into charters and vouchers—and making the policy environment for these alternatives more favorable. Charter schools, unlike traditional public schools, did not struggle during the recession. Their state and federal funding skyrocketed. Too often, financial shortfalls in public school districts were the direct result of pro-charter school policies… Ohio charter schools received substantial funding increases every year between 2008 and 2015. While public schools received increases in a few of those years, they were modest at best—in one instance just one-tenth the size of the charter school increase… In 2013-2014, Ohio school districts, on average, went $256 in the hole for every student who went to a charter… Nine districts sent charters between 20 percent and 65 percent more money than they received from the state—a hard reality to justify when Ohio was already sending charters other funding on the side.” (Schoolhouse Burning, pp. 35-36)