Red States: Waking Up to Public Responsibility for Educating Children?

This is the first of two updates on this spring’s wave of walkouts by schoolteachers.  Today’s post will examine the fiscal implications.  Tomorrow’s will explore what the walkouts may mean about shifting attitudes across some of the Heartland’s Red-states.

In a fine piece for NPR’s All Things Considered, Cory Turner provides some context for the fiscal crisis beneath walkouts across a number of states: “How did we get here? When you put that question to people who study teacher pay, you’ll often hear something like this: ‘I have been saying, Why aren’t (teachers) in the streets?  What took them so long?‘ says Sylvia Allegretto, a labor economist at the University of California, Berkeley.  She’s compared teachers’ weekly wages to workers with similar levels of experience and education and says teachers consistently earn less.”

In a brief for the Economic Policy Institute, Allegretto’s bar graph displays the nationwide disparities in pay between schoolteachers and other college graduates—but it is a lot worse in some places than others.  Oklahoma’s teachers have been making only 67 percent of the income of their college-educated peers in other fields.  Arizona’s teachers (the lowest-paid) have been making 62.8 percent; West Virginia’s teachers 74.6 percent; and Kentucky’s teachers about 78.8 percent. Across the United States, teachers’ wages average 77 percent what others make with equivalent education, and in not one state do teachers’ salaries exceed what their peers are making.

Turner also quotes Bruce Baker, the school finance expert at Rutgers University: “‘Teachers in Arizona are actually at the bottom of the heap…. And teachers in Oklahoma are pretty near that’… He mentions Tennessee and Colorado as other states with a teacher wage gap.  ‘What’s really so striking to me is that it’s had to get this bad. It was kind of like that slow boil over time.'”

Turner adds: “When you focus on teacher salaries, which make up the lion’s share of schools’ spending, data published by the Education Department show that, after adjusting for inflation, U.S. teachers earned less last year, on average, than they did back in 1990. In Oklahoma, teachers’ wages averaged $45,245 last year, down roughly $8,000 in the past decade. Over the same span, in Arizona, teachers’ wages are down roughly $5,000.”

Turner also addresses the myth of the gold-plated teacher pension: “(I)n many states, teachers don’t qualify for Social Security benefits, either. So they really depend on that pension.”  However, new teachers usually have to teach in a school district for five years even to qualify for the pension system. Turner quotes Chad Aldeman, who edits a publication about teacher pension systems: “In the median state, about half of all new teachers won’t stick around long enough to qualify for any pension at all.”  And while school districts must pay, on average, 17 cents on retirement costs for every dollar in teachers’ salaries, Aldeman explains: “Of that 17 cents, about five of it is actually going in benefits, and 12 cents of it is going to pay down unfunded pension obligations.”

One reason the massive walkouts have exerted so much pressure on legislatures is that huge salary disparities across state borders have fed teacher shortages in states paying less.  Teachers in West Virginia have been leaving for Maryland and in Oklahoma for Texas.  POLITICO’s Caitlin Emma quotes Tulsa School Superintendent, Deborah Gist speaking from her cell phone as she marched with striking teachers from Tulsa to Oklahoma City. Gist compared the average teachers’ salary in Texas at $52,575 to the Oklahoma average of $45,245: “I’ve had superintendents in Texas thank us because they hired our teachers. It creates an extraordinarily unstable situation.” Emma adds: “The Sooner State has had to issue emergency certifications to thousands of people in recent years to staff classrooms, raising concerns about qualifications.”

What have teachers won so far through the mass walkouts?  Though teachers have won raises and in some cases school funding boosts, legislators have not been willing to restore cuts to progressive income taxes or to bring back capital gains taxes on wealthy residents and corporations.  Sadly, regressive sales, consumption and sin taxes have prevailed.

Last month West Virginia’s teachers achieved a five percent raise, after the state’s governor had previously offered only one percent. And the state will give the five percent raise to all state employees. It is still unclear where the money will come from as the Governor has promised not to increase taxes.

In Oklahoma, teachers also will get a significant raise, though not the kind of increase they’d hoped for to increase overall school funding. The NY TimesDana Goldstein and Elizabeth Dias report: “In a deep-red state that has pursued tax and service cuts for years, teachers won a raise of about $6,000, depending on experience, while members of schools’ support staff will see a raise of $1,250…  To fund the measures, as well as some limited new revenues for schools, the Republican-controlled Legislature and Gov. Mary Fallin instituted new or higher taxes on oil and gas production, tobacco, motor fuels, and online sales. The state will also allow ball and dice gambling, which we will be taxed.”

After days of striking, Kentucky’s teachers returned to their classrooms after the legislature passed a budget that increases funding for K-12 education and a tax plan to pay for the increase, but Governor Matt Bevin vetoed the spending plan and the taxes to pay for it.  So, last Friday, Kentucky’s teachers closed school for an additional day and brought their enormous presence back to Frankfort. The legislature responded, according to the Associated Press report: “With the chants of hundreds of teachers ringing in their ears, Kentucky lawmakers have completed an override of Gov. Matt Bevin’s veto of a more than $480 million tax hike that helps pay for increases in public education spending.”

The Washington Post‘s Jeff Stein adds that Kentucky’s funding scheme, important as it is, is the definition of regressive: “The plan would flatten Kentucky’s corporate and personal income-tax rates, setting both at 5 percent. Currently, Kentucky’s corporate tax rates runs between 4 and 6 percent, while its income-tax rate ranges from 2 to 6 percent. The new flat rate of 5 percent for everyone means that small companies and Kentuckians with below-average incomes will face tax hikes, and higher earners will get tax cuts. The bill attempts to make up for those cuts by nearly doubling the cigarette tax and imposing sales taxes on 17 additional services, including landscaping, janitorial work, golf courses and pet grooming.”

Pressure from teachers’ walkouts in all these states and a #RedforEd movement threatening its own walkout in Arizona seems to have awakened Arizona’s Governor Doug Ducey, who announced a plan late last week to raise teachers’ salaries 20 percent by 2020. The Arizona Republic reported: “Gov. Doug Ducey on Thursday boosted his proposal for teacher raises next year to 9 percent, up from 1 percent he proposed in January, saying lawmakers would work through the weekend to figure out how to fund the plan.  Coupled with 5 percent raises the following two years—and the 1 percent raise given last year—Ducey said his proposal would give teachers a ‘net pay increase’ of 20 percent by 2020.”

Columnist for Tucson’s Arizona Daily Star, Tim Steller warned, however, on Saturday that it’s too early to celebrate in Arizona: “Everybody was right that the governor’s announcement was hopeful news, but this is no time for teachers or the #RedForEd movement to declare victory and stash away their crimson shirts. The only thing that has gotten them this far is collective action and increasing pressure. They cornered the governor in an election year, and they shouldn’t let him out till they’ve got their raises and increased school funding in hand… Ducey’s dramatic announcement was a great relief, but it was just words. It was a proposal to use money of unclear origin to raise the pay for teachers but not other employees like counselors and teachers’ aides. It’s a good gesture, but so far nothing more.”

Meanwhile on Sunday, April 8th, legislators in Kansas—under pressure from the state’s supreme court which had, last October, set an April 30 deadline for compliance with its earlier court order to increase school funding—passed a $534 million increase in school funding over five years. The state’s funding for public schools had collapsed in recent years as a result of former Governor Sam Brownback’s  failed experiment with tax cutting and supply side economics. However, after some hope early in April that the Legislature has likely appropriated enough money to meet the Kansas Supreme Court’s expectation, it turns out there was an $80 million flaw in the math behind the plan. The Associated Press‘s John Hanna reports: “The bill approved by lawmakers early Sunday was meant to phase in a $534 million increase over five years, and with the flaw, the figure is $454 million or perhaps a little less.” After a two week break, the Legislature will now return on April 26. There seems to be hope that the miscalculation will be fixed.

In these all-Red states across the Heartland, it is clear that a reckoning has begun. But so far there is neither clear agreement that paying taxes is a responsibility of citizens and businesses nor that taxation should be progressive with the heaviest responsibility falling on those who can best afford to support the public. At least, driven by the voices and actions of desperate schoolteachers—and in Kansas by a supreme court enforcing the state constitution—governors and legislators are having to face that their citizens seem suddenly to agree that there is a floor beneath which education services must not fall. And there seems to be an awareness that enough well qualified teachers are at the heart of what is necessary. That is a positive development.

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Puerto Rico Will Experiment with Shock Doctrine Education Reform

Even though our education-disrupter-in-chief, Arne Duncan, has moved to the private sector to work for Laurene Powell Jobs’ Emerson Collective, L.L.C., we should not expect his kind of thinking in education to disappear. Duncan—purveyor of disruption through charter schools—believer in social entrepreneurship as a replacement for old fashioned school systems—father of rewarding the kids who can race to the top in a climate of competition—represented a wave of business school theorizing about public education that is absent from Betsy DeVos’s plain old libertarian philosophy. Still, it turns out, DeVos is quite supportive of a new plan to introduce marketplace school choice in Puerto Rico.

Catherine Cheney reports on a Global Skills & Education Forum last week, a forum whose agenda reflects today’s push to turn over whole education systems to philanthropic-driven experiments in privatization. In Cheney’s report, you’ll see that venture philanthropists are exploring how to bring “quality education for all” across the world and doing it for profit—or sometimes not-for-profit—based on theories hatched in think tanks underwritten with billionaire philanthropic dollars donated to foundations or L.L.C.s like the Chan-Zuckerberg Initiative or Powell Jobs’ Emerson Collective.

It is sometimes hard to parse out how all this will work when one reads about it through the glowing haze of business school rhetoric.  Here is Cheney’s description: “‘There is definitely an interest in for-profit companies that serve the very poor right now, but it’s mostly concessional ventures, groups that are quasi-philanthropic,’ said John Rogers, a partner and education sector lead at the Rise Fund, a global impact fund led by the private equity firm TPG. The fund is looking for opportunities to help the mass market in a way that is not concessionary, Rogers said.  The Rise Fund’s first investment in Latin America was in Digital House, a group of schools based in Argentina providing digital skills across Latin America. Rogers said he hopes more groups that are making grants and program-related investments will consider for-profit companies because they may find that the focus on profit also delivers greater scale.”

Cheney describes lots of controversy and discussion at the recent global education forum about Bridge International Academies (BIA), the for-profit, tech-heavy schools exported to Kenya, Uganda, Liberia, and India, where governments have been contracting with—and sometimes disgustedly cancelling the contracts with—BIA schools. Bridge International Academies was built with a huge personal investment by Bill Gates, Mark Zuckerberg and others. There have been problems of high tuition for parents along with mixed results for children and for the governments that worry about undermining stressed out public systems by contracting with an international, tech-heavy scheme. Cheney describes controversy swirling around BIA schools: “New models that push for change are often met with resistance, and that has certainly proven true in efforts to transform education.  Bridge International Academies is one high-profile example of the backlash against Silicon Valley’s involvement in education. The tech heavy chain of private schools has come under fire in multiple countries, leading to a legal battle over some of its schools.  Some Bridge investors have dismissed many of the concerns, saying the backlash comes from people who do not want to see the status quo disrupted….”  One analyst explained: “Bridge International Academies serves as a cautionary tale about the problems of perception when a model appears to be replacing people rather than supporting people.”  Of course, the problem may be reality rather than mere perception: people may well be concerned when electronic devices are used to increase class size and reduce the number of live teachers.

All this international policy talk serves as a backdrop for what is being discussed and planned in Puerto Rico, the U.S. territory ravaged by Hurricane Maria last September. The reality is that when disaster strikes these days, there are plenty of philanthropically funded think tanks and consultants poised to sell your government on the ideology of privatizing your public schools.  Remember that after Hurricane Katrina in 2005, one of the primary funders of the privatization of New Orleans’ schools was the Bill and Melinda Gates Foundation.

On March 22, POLITICO reported: “A law that would overhaul Puerto Rico’s education system—and usher in charter schools and taxpayer-financed vouchers for alternatives to public schools—is on its way to the desk of Gov. Ricardo Rossello.  The plan was pitched as the island’s education system grappled with a tough recovery and mass migration to the states following Hurricane Maria.  The proposal finalized by both legislative chambers this week would reduce the number of students who can receive school vouchers to… 3 percent—down from the 5 percent Puerto Rico’s House of Representatives had approved last week… The Legislation would allow for the creation of charter schools, or for the conversion of existing public schools into charters. An amendment from the island’s Senate, however, prohibits specialized schools, like Montessori schools, from converting to charters.”

The source of this plan, according to The Nation, is Julia Keleher, Puerto Rico’s Secretary of Education, but previously a consultant from Philadelphia hired by Puerto Rico to “reform” the island’s education: “(I)n the four years leading up to her appointment, Keleher’s consultancy firm, Keleher & Associates, had been awarded almost $1 million in contracts to ‘design and implement education reform initiatives’ in Puerto Rico… With the assistance of DeVos’s office, Keleher’s department has now produced an education-reform bill designed to increase ‘school choice through measures such as the creation of charter schools and school-voucher programs.'”

How have Betsy DeVos and the U.S. Department of Education been involved?  Apparently Keleher has worked through the winter with Jason Botel, DeVos’s assistant secretary.  For The Intercept, Rachel Cohen reports: “DeVos and her federal education department have certainly been involved. DeVos’s Deputy Assistant Secretary Jason Botel has been in ‘close communication’ with Puerto Rio’s Education Secretary Julia Keleher for months since the storm, and in a blog post published in January, Botel wrote, ‘We look forward to supporting students, educators and community members as they not only rebuild what’s been lost, but also improve, rethink and renew.'”  Cohen adds: “At a time when the island is starved of investment and inching slowly through a storm recovery, many Puerto Rican’s worry that the government is treating this more as an opportunity to disrupt education, rather than stabilize it—while also potentially opening the doors for supercharged corruption.”

Only weeks after the governor’s signing of the new education plan, Puerto Rico’s Department of Education has now announced the closing of 283 public schools. Valerie Strauss puts this number in perspective: a third of the public schools on the island. The stated purpose of the school closures is to save money by consolidating schools after many students have left Puerto Rico for the mainland.

Nobody in a position of power seems to have questioned the logic of expanding school choice and privatization at a time when public school enrollment has already been falling as families abandon the island. Researchers like Bruce Baker and scholars at Chicago’s Roosevelt University have, however, pointed out repeatedly that by expanding the number of charter schools in the same geographic space while public school enrollment has already been dropping, cities like Chicago have further undermined their public school districts by creating an ongoing cycle of closure of neighborhood public schools.

Many worry that Puerto Rico’s experiment with privatization is another example of what—in relation to the seizure and privatization of New Orleans’ schools after Hurricane Katrina, Naomi Klein called “the Shock Doctrine.” Certainly those at the Global Skills and Education Conference are contemplating disruptive education reform—developed with money from technology-driven venture philanthropies to be introduced top-down in the developing world where public schools are suffering.  Klein’s description of the use of Hurricane Katrina, the 2005 natural disaster, as the excuse to disrupt and privatize the public schools of New Orleans remains pertinent to  Julia Keleher and Jason Botel’s plan for the disruption of education in hurricane-devastated Puerto Rico today.

Here is Naomi Klein: “In sharp contrast to the glacial pace with which the levees were repaired and the electricity grid was brought back online, the auctioning off of New Orleans’ school system took place with military speed and precision.  Within nineteen months, with most of the city’s poor residents still in exile, New Orleans’ public school system had been almost completely replaced by privately run charter schools.  Before Hurricane Katrina, the school board had run 123 public schools; now it ran just 4.  Before the storm, there had been 7 charter schools in the city; now there were 31.  New Orleans teachers used to be represented by a strong union; now the union’s contract had been shredded, and its forty-seven hundred members had all been fired.  Some of the younger teachers were rehired by the charters, at reduced salaries; most were not.  New Orleans was now, according to The New York Times, ‘the nation’s preeminent laboratory for the widespread use of charter schools’…. I call these orchestrated raids on the public sphere in the wake of catastrophic events, combined with the treatment of disasters as exciting market opportunities, ‘disaster capitalism.'” (The Shock Doctrine, pp. 5-6)

Just Perhaps an Education Spring Is Beginning to Bud

While teachers have been demonstrating in the state capitals of West Virginia, Oklahoma, and Kentucky, a huge fight about the subject of their demonstrations—the failure of states adequately to fund public education—has been going on without so much fanfare in Kansas, where legislators have fought and failed so far to arrive at any kind of compromise about raising funds to comply with a deadline set by the state’s supreme court.

Facing an April 30 deadline set by the Kansas Supreme Court to come up with enough funds to undo years years of catastrophic tax slashing by former Governor Sam Brownback and the same legislature, this week Republican leaders in the Kansas Legislature debated plans for phasing in minimal additional funding over five years—one plan with $274 million and and another with $520 million.  They have also been talking about a tired, old strategy: Attack the Supreme Court itself. Here is the Associated Press report on this latest idea brought to the legislature: “A coalition of Kansas business and agricultural groups is proposing a constitutional amendment that would give the Legislature sole authority to decide education funding levels…. The constitutional amendment proposed by the Kansas Coalition for Fair Funding would remove the state court’s role in deciding what constitutes suitable education funding….”

By contrast, as teachers marched and filled statehouse lobbies this month in West Virginia, Oklahoma and Kentucky, at least some progress was made to repair years and years of austerity budgeting caused by years and years of tax slashing.  All four states—including Kansas—are part of today’s 26-state, all Red wave of Republican trifecta states. In these statehouses large blocks of legislators have signed Grover Norquist’s never-raise-taxes-in-my-lifetime pledge. These general assemblies are dominated by membership in the American Legislative Exchange Council.

That’s why, despite that the teachers haven’t been winning every salary or pension or state education budget fight, it is necessary to point out that striking teachers have at least begun to apply enough pressure to staunch the bleeding. That’s why Kentucky’s Lexington Herald-Leader‘s editorial board thanked the teachers who have been protesting: “Lawmakers knew that fired-up educators and pro-education Kentuckians, who filled the Capitol for weeks, were watching. That’s a big reason the Republicans who control the General Assembly abandoned some of Republican Gov. Matt Bevin’s and their own worst ideas for cutting public pensions and public spending. Instead lawmakers chose—of all things—to raise taxes. Many had to break the pledge that they had signed to oppose all tax increases. They responded to the needs and demands of Kentuckians rather than answer to distant anti-government puppet masters. That’s refreshing and encouraging.”  The editorial goes on to explain that the tax increase was the most regressive kind of consumption-sales tax and that the Kentucky legislature did at the same time further cut taxes on the state’s richest citizens, but teachers at least succeeded in securing some funding for the state’s children and their schools as they also demanded that their own pension system be fixed.  (Kentucky is among the fifteen states where teachers do not qualify for Social Security. The pension system provides their sole retirement benefit.)

This week the teachers’ walkouts and teachers’ protests of Red-state tax slashing have also made it as a topic of the commentariat.  Teachers have managed to make visible what has been a widespread problem for years—a problem of state-by-state tax policy that has slipped beneath the radar because it is too wonky and also too easy to castigate as somebody else’s problem.  Without mentioning the teachers themselves, the NY Times columnist and economist Paul Krugman, writing on Monday, explained, “I think we have to acknowledge the role of self-destructive politics… (C)onsider how some states, like Kansas and Oklahoma—both of which were relatively affluent in the 1970s, but have now fallen far behind—have gone in for radical tax cuts, and ended up savaging their education systems.”

The Washington Post’s E.J. Dionne Jr. also suddenly noticed state tax slashing, austerity budgeting, and public school under-funding: “The new teacher activism—born in West Virginia and spreading to Oklahoma, Kentucky and Arizona—is not a flash in the pan. And it’s about more than the demand for higher wages and benefits. It is a revolt against decades of policies that gutted public institutions… Today’s rebellion… is also built on genuine disaffection, in this case over the impact of deep budget cutbacks in conservative states, usually to support tax cuts tilted toward corporations and the well-off.  The teachers are bringing this home by refusing to confine their energies to their own pay.  They are highlighting the deterioration of the conditions students face—aging textbooks, crumbling buildings and reductions in actual teaching time… The red-state insurrections are a reminder of something that can be lost in our back-and-forth about school reform: Money matters.  You can’t run a decent school system on the cheap.  If you could, successful suburban school districts wouldn’t invest so much, and teacher pay is part of this.”

If such columnists regularly wrote about all children’s right to well funded public schools, there would not be such a need for blogs like this one.

Dionne and other columnists recommend that we notice the work of Brooklyn College political scientist, Corey Robin, who believes we may be observing the emergence of a revolution against the anti-tax conservative orthodoxy of the last forty years.  Robin theorizes that our current situation began with the passage—largely ignored in the political season when it was passed by referendum in 1978—of California’s tax freeze, Proposition 13: “which radically gutted property taxes in California and made it extremely difficult to raise taxes in the future. This was the real harbinger of the country’s future, a fundamental assault on the postwar liberal settlement of high taxes, high state spending, high public services….”

Robin continues: “It’s 40 years later… Right now, in the reddest of states, in the places you’d least expect it, teachers are starting a movement not only to raise their salaries and improve the schools, not only to reverse the assault on public education, not only to reverse the rule of Scott Walker which was supposed to provide a national model across the country, but to confront the real governing order of the last 40 years: the Prop 13 order.  In West Virginia, Oklahoma, Kentucky, and Arizona, we’re seeing the real resistance, the most profound and deepest attack on the basic assumptions of the contemporary governing order.”

I am a resident of all-Red Ohio, whose property tax freeze—similar to Prop. 13—is embedded in our state’s constitution. Ohio is also a state where tax cuts for corporations and the rich have been undermining public school funding for years.

I am grateful to the public school teachers who have been striking this month to improve not only their salaries but also their working—and our children’s learning—conditions.

However, by paying attention to the impasse in the Kansas General Assembly, we can see that turning around what Robin calls “the Prop 13 order” will be neither quick nor easy. We’ll need persistently to stand with teachers as they rise up against educational austerity in Red-state America.

This blog has covered this month’s walkouts by teachers here, here, here and here.

Robin Hood in Reverse: State Tax Deductions Steal from Public Schools, Reward Rich Parents with 529 Accounts

When Congress passed a major tax reform bill in December, it created the possibility of using 529 college savings plans for private K-12 education—a new way to save for private school tuition at public expense—especially when the states add their own tax credits and tax deductions to incentivize parents to use 529 accounts. Parents have been able to save for college using such plans, where the money appreciates with a financial benefit: The parents don’t have to pay tax on the interest that accrues while the money sits in the account.

NY Times columnist Ron Lieber explains how all this would work for a family using a 529 plan to help with private school tuition and later with college costs: “In a bill that offered many perks for the wealthy, the 529 provision was a particularly brazen giveaway… With 529 plans, you put money in, let it grow for years in mutual funds and then pull it out to use for higher education expenses. When you do, you don’t pay capital gains taxes on what you’ve earned over time… At this point, it would be financial malpractice for accountants and financial advisers not to be recommending to clients that they consider this kind of upfront investment. Imagine a wealthy family in the highest tax bracket that opens a 529 plan with $200,000 and doesn’t add another cent. The money grows at 6 percent annually, and the family takes out the maximum $10,000 each year, avoiding $2,380 in (federal) taxes annually. During the elementary and secondary school years, it saves $30,940 in (federal) taxes. At that point, the account would still have money left over. A lot of money: $370,717.  And once the beneficiary of the 529 account enters college, the family can withdraw as much as the entire annual cost of college and related expenses (not just $10,000) each year, avoiding even more capital gains taxes over that period.”

Let’s be very clear: By changing the law to permit parents to use 529 accounts to pay for K-12 education, Congress wasn’t trying to help poor people. 529 plans are for people with money managers and financial advisors. From the point of view a wealthy family, this makes good financial sense. But what about the point of view of a society trying to provide a system of mass public K-12 education?  Within the scope of the federal budget, the new program is merely a blip.  But states provide about half of all public school funding, and over 30 states have been providing tax incentives—tax deductions or tax credits—to encourage college savings.

Now, after Congress expanded the opportunity for parents to use 529 plans for private K-12 schooling, states are rushing to conform their 529 college savings plans to the new federal law permitting the money to be used for K-12 private school tuition. The Wall Street Journal‘s Michelle Hackman explains how this is playing out: “State officials across the country are increasingly worried that a provision in the new tax law extending college savings accounts to K-12 expenses will blow an unexpected hole in their budgets. The federal government created modern 529 savings plans in the mid-1990s that allow families to put away money for education and allow it to grow tax-free. As an added incentive, more than 30 states offer their own tax breaks to people who put money into the accounts. In December, as part of a broad tax overhaul, Congress expanded the accounts to cover up to $10,000 a year in expenses for kindergarten through 12th grade. State budget officials are now concerned that a large number of parents will use 529 accounts to pay private school tuition, giving them a new write-off for their state taxes.  That could result in potentially millions of dollars in lost tax revenue at a time when most states are struggling to close budget deficits.” (The Wall Street Journal paywalls its articles. Hackman’s piece, “States Worry You May Claim 529 Tax Exemption for K-12 School Tuition,” was published on 2/16/18.)

Hackman calculates the amounts particular states stand to lose: “Some red states have embraced the change. In Missouri, state officials have launched a social media campaign to tell residents they can use 529 accounts, and the state’s $8000-a-person tax deduction, for primary and secondary school expenses… Other states are expressing concern, some more publicly than others.  In Indiana, where the state offers a $1,000 tax credit to anyone putting money in a 529 account, the state could lose $117 million a year….”

Here is one way Hackman believes the new state provisions might be abused. She speculates that, unless states craft their laws with careful protections, parents might deposit the money they plan to spend for private school tuition into a 529 account and then pull it out the next week to pay tuition, thereby collecting whatever tax deduction the state provides as an incentive for investing in what is supposed to be a long term 529 account. What lawmakers originally intended as an incentive for long term investment becomes a short term tax dodge.

Fund Public Schools, Not Savings Accounts for the Rich, a February brief from Policy Matters Ohio, warned the Ohio Legislature against passing a provision in Senate Bill 22 to expand Ohio’s tax incentive for parents who now save for college in a 529 account to apply to parents who use the accounts for K-12 private school expenses. Parents in Ohio have been able to qualify for up to a $4,000 state tax deduction for investing in a 529 plan: “Ohio lawmakers should not allow contributions to 529 plan college savings accounts to be used to pay for K-12 private and parochial school tuition. CollegeAdvantage (Ohio’s 529 plan) is primarily used by the upper income and does little to help middle- and low-income people.  The GOP wants to slash funding for important… K-12 programs, while rewarding the most affluent with tax cuts for sending their children to private school. If Ohio adopts this proposal, it will prioritize tax cuts for the wealthy over revenue to support public education, which educates the vast majority of Ohio’s children.”

Despite the warning, both houses of Ohio’s supermajority Republican legislature passed SB 22, and recently Governor John Kasich signed the bill into law.

Kentucky: Teachers Stand Up for a Decent State Budget, Their Pensions, and Public Responsibility

If you have been watching the courageous teachers, first in West Virginia, now in Oklahoma and Kentucky, standing up for their right to be paid fairly—to have a pension after long years of working with children and adolescents—to work in schools adequately supplied with enough counselors and social workers, technology and an ample and stimulating curriculum—I wonder if, like me, you find it refreshing to see a large number of teachers out in the open speaking about what they do. In these days of too many guns, teachers are more and more safely locked into schools with the children they teach. They and their contributions are pretty much invisible to the rest of us. We forget about them and we take them for granted.

We neglect to make any mental connection to what it means for teachers (and children) when politicians promise us we can grow the economy by slashing taxes. Teachers, however, have to pay attention when ballooning class sizes make it harder to address personally the needs of 35 or 40 children. They watch kids grieve when football or instrumental music or a high school newspaper dies. They notice when there are too few counselors to help students whose parents are not college educated put together a good college application. They know the consequences when their rural school lacks access to broadband.  Better than anybody else, school teachers understand the meaning of cuts to the state education budget.  And this month teachers have been creating opportunities to tell us all what they know.

Maybe part of our forgetting about teachers comes from gender bias. As we have all noticed in West Virginia last month, and now in Oklahoma and Kentucky, most of these teachers are energetic young women. All the old messages come into play: Teachers do their work because they love our children; the money isn’t so important to them. They’re probably married and have another income to depend on in addition to whatever they can bring in from teaching. These women should be good sports as they do more with less. And the worst: Teaching is really just glorified babysitting.

Teachers do love to work with our children, but at the same time their work is the job by which they must support their own children.  They must pay for food, housing, a car, and childcare. The required contribution to the family’s’ health insurance keeps rising.  They have to save for their children’s college, and they need to save for retirement, particularly when the pensions they pay into every month are cut.

In Kentucky, this week’s teacher walkout was at first a response to a new pension plan, passed by the legislature in the middle of the night with no hearings. Writing for The New Republic, Sarah Jones describes the new pension plan as, “a Frankenstein bill. Originally sewage legislation, it became a hybrid pension bill that affected many state employees.  The pension bill had itself known several lives; each iteration sparked large protests by current and retired teachers… Republicans revived it from apparent death…”  The bill creates a tiered pension system with any future teachers receiving diminished benefits.

There was also another issue at the heart of the Kentucky protests: the state budget, passed by the legislature Monday night after thousands of schoolteachers massed in Frankfort. The budget will raise per-pupil funding from $3,700 to $4,000, an improvement, but still below pre-recession levels when adjusted for inflation, according to the Louisville Courier Journal

The Center on Budget and Policy Priorities (CBPP) identifies Kentucky as one of twelve states where per-pupil formula funding, when adjusted for inflation, remains lower than it was a decade ago, just before the Great Recession hit.  Oklahoma’s funding is farthest behind (28.5 percent lower); Texas is next (16.2 percent lower); and Kentucky is third from the bottom (15.8 percent lower).  Not only is Kentucky’s funding lower than it was ten years ago, but despite the drop, Kentucky is among seven states which cut funding even lower in 2017 according to CBPP.  Instead of trying to make up for previous cuts to schools, last year Kentucky cut school funding per student by an additional 2.3 percent.

The Associated Press reported on Monday night: “As teachers rally at the state Capitol in Kentucky, lawmakers there are considering a new state budget that includes a big boost in spending for public education… Budget negotiators in Kentucky unveiled a spending plan Monday that includes increased spending for the main funding formula for K-12 schools.  The plan also restored $254 million in money for school buses that the state’s Republican governor had proposed eliminating.”  The new funding is to be paid for with a 6 percent sales tax on previously untaxed services.

Kentucky  became an all-Red supermajority state only in 2015, with the election of Matt Bevin as governor. Bevin intends to grow Kentucky’s economy through tax slashing and trickle down—the strategy that failed in Kansas and lots of other places. Bevin blames teachers for standing in his way.  Here again is Sarah Jones describing Bevin’s response to protests and walkouts by schoolteachers: “Bevin has responded to criticism by going on offense. Teachers have a ‘thug mentality,’ he said; they were also ‘selfish and short-sighted’ for protesting his proposed reforms. ‘It’s about just straight up wanting more than your fair share’…”

The Washington Post’s Valerie Strauss sums up what the Kentucky, West Virginia and Oklahoma walkouts say about public education in 2018: “Underpaid and under-resourced teachers have had enough. Tired of struggling to pay their bills and educating students without sufficient resources—or, in some places, heat to keep kids from freezing in the winter—teachers are suddenly rebelling in places not known for union activism. The protests are coming in states that have seen the country’s deepest funding cuts for public education by Republican legislators…. For years teachers have felt as if they were under assault by policymakers… Republican-led legislatures have voted to strip or eliminate tenure and the right of teachers to collectively bargain.  Funding for traditional school districts has in many states been diverted to school choice options… Many teachers have to take a second job to pay their bills, and funding cuts have resulted in dire school conditions for students and educators… The notion that teachers have easy jobs would be laughable if it weren’t so serious.  And many districts are so starved for cash that teachers spend their own money to make sure their classrooms have basic supplies…. The United States has a school funding system unlike any other in the world, which has resulted in wealthy areas having far better schools than poor areas.”

Columnist Paul Waldman examines the broader political implications: “There’s a revolt beginning among the nation’s schoolteachers…. Or it might be more properly understood as a revolt among teachers in states governed by Republicans, although it’s almost never framed that way in the news media. But that’s exactly what it is. What we’re seeing is an indictment of the Republican model of taxation, spending and governance…. which dictates low taxes and social services—like schools—that are as minimally funded as possible… If you commit to never raising taxes for any reason, then you’re almost guaranteed to create an underfunded school system that will struggle to attract and retain good teachers.”

Desperate Oklahoma Teachers Show Us the Essential Role of Taxes in a Good Society

In his fine book, The One Percent Solution, economist Gordon Lafer describes the widespread attack on public education across the now 26 red trifecta states, with House, Senate and Governor’s mansion dominated by far-right Republican majorities: “At first glance, it may seem odd that corporate lobbies such as the Chamber of Commerce, National Federation of Independent Businesses, or Americans for Prosperity would care to get involved in an issue as far removed from commercial activity as school reform. In fact, they have each made this a top legislative priority. As a result, in recent years there has been more (state) legislation adopted related to education than to any other area of social or economic policy… This unprecedented rush of legislation is not a response to sudden educational crisis…. Rather, it represents long-held ambitions that became politically possible following Citizens United, project RedMap, and the Great Recession-induced fiscal crisis.” (The One Percent Percent Solution, pp. 128-129)

Now across several states teachers are pushing backThis blog covered the recent successful West Virginia teachers’ strike that brought long underpaid teachers in that state a significant raise.  Today, the subject is Oklahoma, whose teachers are on strike to protest their abysmal salaries and the long underfunding of the state’s schools.  Tomorrow’s subject will be Kentucky.  All of these states have made tax slashing and austerity budgeting a priority—at the expense of public education.

Describing the reasons Oklahoma teachers went on strike yesterday, the Washington Post‘s, Moriah Balingit writes: “Oklahoma’s schools and educators have endured some of the steepest cuts in education in the last decade, reductions that are evident in dwindling supplies, aging textbooks and the pay stubs of teachers. Before last week, state lawmakers have not raised the minimum salary for teachers in a decade, making them among the worst paid in the nation… The cuts in Oklahoma… had dire consequences for schools. Districts have not been able to maintain buildings, so students shiver through the winter in classrooms with faulty heating, share long-outdated textbooks and become accustomed to a rotating cast of teachers. Many school districts have moved to four-day school weeks because they cannot afford to keep the lights on for five days.”

The NY TimesDana Goldstein describes how serving in Oklahoma has changed the point of view of Deborah Gist, the former state superintendent in Rhode Island and a corporate school reformer. Gist left Rhode Island to become Tulsa’s school superintendent: “Deborah Gist, who as the hard-charging education commissioner in Rhode Island tried to weaken teachers’ seniority protections and often clashed with their union, is now Tulsa’s schools superintendent and is allied with the Oklahoma union—the Oklahoma Education Association—in a fight for more money. Dr. Gist said she is unable to attract or retain effective educators because they can earn up to $20,000 more per year by moving to Texas or other neighboring states. Because so few licensed teachers are applying for jobs, Tulsa has relied on emergency certifications to hire more than 100 teachers who lack training in education. ‘Our teachers in Oklahoma are going above and beyond every single day for an unacceptable and unsustainable salary that doesn’t even provide them with a living wage,’ she said.” As Tulsa’s school superintendent, Gist has encountered the teachers in her employ working second jobs waiting tables, running the check out line at the grocery store, and driving for Uber.

For the Los Angeles Times, Matt Pearce provides salary details: “Starting pay for a teacher in Oklahoma with a bachelor’s degree is $31,600—a figure set by the Legislature. The state’s average salary for public school teachers is $45,276, lower than in any state except Mississippi and South Dakota….” In the 1990s the state legislature pushed through a statewide ballot initiative requiring a 75 percent legislative supermajority to increase taxes—the most stringent supermajority required anywhere for passage of a tax. Until last week, it had been 28 years since Oklahoma had passed a new tax. Under threat of a statewide strike last week, the legislature did pass a measure that would raise taxes enough to increase teachers’ salaries by $6,000, but the revenue increase would not raise enough to address all of the teachers’ other demands for funding education after a years’ long downturn.

In an earlier report for the Washington Post, Moriah Balingit shows how the state’s inability to overcome the supermajority rule for passing taxes has been complicated by additional factors: “The state’s funding crisis began at least a decade ago when the recession hit, leading lawmakers to take a cleaver to education spending  Even after the state’s economy recovered, long-standing tax cuts and plunging oil prices constrained state revenue and depleted education spending. In this deeply conservative state, lawmakers have resisted raising taxes….”

Writing for Jacobin Magazine, Eric Blanc traces the deterioration of public schools to continuing cuts in oil and gas production taxes: “Oklahoma currently has the lowest tax rate on oil and gas of any state. Until recently, the state charged a 7 percent gross production tax on oil and gas drilling, yet a 2015 tax break lowered this to 2 percent for the first three years that a well is in use. The cost to the state is estimated at $300 to $400 million yearly.”  “More recently, in February of this year, a legislative proposal called Step Up Oklahoma—jointly backed by business leaders, the governor, and the OEA teachers’ union—would have given teachers a $5,000 increase, primarily by levying regressive sales taxes.  The proposal failed to clear the 75 percent supermajority hurdle, but the very fact that leading Republicans were now talking about modestly raising taxes testified to their growing awareness that the crisis of public education had become a political time bomb… Oklahoma teachers have felt hopeless and powerless for years… (but) inspired by West Virginia’s example, strike fever rapidly spread across Oklahoma.”

Oklahoma is the state whose basic school funding formula per pupil is farthest behind where it was in 2008, when the Great Recession hit, according to the most recent report of the Center on Budget and Policy Priorities.  Oklahoma’s basic per-pupil funding is 28.2 percent lower, inflation adjusted, than in 2008—far lower than other states that have fallen behind. In Texas, per-pupil formula funding lags the 2008 level by 16.2 percent; Kentucky by 15.8 percent, Alabama by 15.3 percent, Arizona by 13.6 percent, and West Virginia by 11.3 percent.

For VOX, Alexia Fernandez Campbell summarizes the crisis—not only for underpaid teachers but also for children and for communities—that Oklahoma’s teachers expect the legislature address: “Last year, about a quarter of the state’s public school teachers left the state or quit teaching altogether. Those who remain have come up with a list of demands.  Teachers want raises for all state employees for the next three years, plus more spending on health care and pension plans. They also want lawmakers to restore millions of dollars in school funding that have been cut in the past decade. To meet the educators’ demands, state legislators need to come up with $3.3 billion over three years to pay for it. So far lawmakers have come up short”… Last week’s plan, passed by legislative supermajorities and signed by Governor Mary Fallin will “still only bring in $447 million for teachers’ pay raises….  The teachers’ demands add up to about $3.3 billion over three years.  That’s money Oklahoma doesn’t have on hand.” Campbell explains: “The latest bill… (passed last week) is the most generous yet, but the $447 million it would bring is still far too short.”

LA Times reporter Pearce adds an amazing detail about the teachers’ strike in Oklahoma: it doesn’t pit labor against management. Local school boards and school superintendents, unable to budge the legislature themselves, are grateful to schoolteachers for using the power of a strike to address a school finance catastrophe: “(S)chool boards across the state have taken a highly unusual step: They’re helping their workers go on strike. When teachers—or for that matter, workers in any field—strike, it’s usually a showdown with the bosses… But in Oklahoma—as with the recent nine-day teachers strike in West Virginia—the traditional battle lines between workers and management have gotten blurred as both sides take aim at a bigger target: the state Legislature. Across the state, teachers are getting a  boost from superintendents and school boards as they prepare to walk off the job…. At school board meetings, superintendents have given presentations to board members and curious parents about how a teacher walkout would work—and how they could support, and not oppose, a strike that would affect hundreds of thousands of Oklahoma students… Shawn Hime, executive director of the school board association, said that among the state’s 513 districts, he had not heard of a school board that had rejected the idea of a walkout.”

DeVos Department of Education Clashes with Federal Employees Union over Contract

On Wednesday afternoon U.S. Department of Education employees held a rally to protest the imposition on the Department’s employees of what Betsy DeVos has called a contract agreement. The so-called contract was, however, neither agreed to nor signed by any representative of the American Federation of Government Employees.

The Washington Post‘s Joe Davidson explains: “The Education Department is attempting to enforce a ‘collective bargaining agreement’ on a union that does not agree. The department’s move to foist a contract on the American Federation of Government Employees (AFGE) is the Trump administration’s latest and most dramatic attack on federal labor organizations and has implications far beyond the 3,900 employees the union represents at the department. This bold stroke could herald what federal unions across the government might encounter from an administration bent on belittling them.”

Rachel Cohen first broke the story on March 15, in The Intercept: “The union representing nearly 4,000 federal employees working for the U.S. Department of Education filed a complaint this week accusing the agency, run by Betsy DeVos, of union busting…. (M)anagement officials at the Education Department informed their workers’ union, the American Federation of Government Employees Council 252, that they would no longer be bargaining with them. Instead, management issued a 40-page document the department is calling a ‘collective bargaining agreement.’… Education Department staffers have been represented by the AFGE since 1982… In an interview with The Intercept, AFGE Assistant General Counsel Ward Morrow said it’s ‘extremely unusual’ to have to file a complaint over something like this. ‘You can’t even call it a collective bargaining agreement because it wasn’t collective, it wasn’t bargained, and there was no agreement,’ he said.”

In his Washington Post PowerPost commentary, Davidson analyzes the changes taking place: “The Department’s contract is part of a pattern demonstrating the administration’s disdain for organized labor. In September, President Trump initiated his assault with an executive order abolishing labor-management forums, created by former president Barack Obama to foster communication between supervisors and staff.  Trump’s budget proposal, released last month, implicitly blames federal unions for ’employer-employee relations activities (that) currently consume considerable management time and taxpayer resources, and may negatively impact efficiency, effectiveness, cost of operations, and employee accountability and performance.'”

Davidson explains further: “Capitol Hill Republicans have long pushed legislation to restrict ‘official time,’ which allows union officials, while being paid by the government, to engage with managers on a limited set of issues affecting employees generally… Official time is grounded in the obligation of federal unions to represent everyone in a bargaining unit and not just dues-paying members.  Those on official time cannot engage in strictly union activities, like recruiting members. Official time can be used for things such as improving productivity and safety and dealing with retaliation and discrimination.”

Cohen reports that office space and equipment in the Education Department building will no longer be provided to the union: “The new edict seeks to curtail union activity by imposing significant new rules and restrictions on the AFGE… Federal laptops, printers, and cellphones assigned to union members must be returned by March 26.  Union office space must be vacated by April 11, unless the AFGE wants to start paying fair-market rent for its use.  Staffers who serve as union officers are now also being told that they will no longer receive paid leave for time spent performing union representational duties.”

Cohen reports that Education Department spokesperson, Liz Hill blames the union for “dragging its feet on ground rules negotiations without reaching any agreement, and then failed to respond in timely manner to negotiate over the contract proposed by the Department.”

Cohan reports the union’s response from AFGE Council 252 President, Claudette Young: “We did not have any sticking points, we were not at an impasse… We were negotiating ground rules and making progress at every negotiating session. We don’t believe that we had anything we would not have been able to reach an agreement over if bargaining were to continue.”

Education Week‘s Alyson Klein provides background: “The contract dispute is happening as DeVos and her team are working on a major reorganization of the department. The plan calls for merging the Office of Innovation and Improvement, which deals with charter and private schools, with the Office of Elementary and Secondary Education, the main K-12 office, among other changes.  The plan has meant reassignments for senior career managers and other employees.  For instance, the department’s chief privacy officer, Kathleen Styles, was reassigned and replaced by her deputy, Angela Arrington.” DeVos had also planned to break up the Department’s budget office, but Congress blocked that change with a provision added to the omnibus 2018 spending bill passed last week and signed by President Trump.

Klein puts the Department’s internal union dispute in a broader context: “The confrontation at the education department coincides with a big moment for education unions. Teachers in West Virginia stopped work for nine school days until the state legislature agreed to a 5 percent pay raise. Educators in Oklahoma are preparing a walkout in early April, and unions in other states are contemplating a similar move. As secretary, DeVos hasn’t taken sides in the state-level teacher contract disputes… She… said she supported both higher teacher salaries and responsible state budgeting.  But back in Michigan, DeVos and her family rarely saw eye-to-eye with unions, including the Michigan Education Association…. (T)he DeVos family was a force behind a successful campaign in Michigan to turn the state into a ‘right-to-work state.’  The Michigan Freedom Fund, an organization headed up by Greg McNeilly, a long-time associate of the Devoses, helped lead the charge in getting the legislation passed.”