Arizona Teachers Will Walk Out Tomorrow for Salaries and Adequate School Funding

Last Thursday, Arizona’s teachers voted to walk out tomorrow, April 26, unless Governor Doug Ducey can show there is a way to pay for his recent promise to raise teachers’ salaries in one of the nation’s lowest paying states. For the Washington Post, Valerie Strauss reports: “Ducey said he would give teachers a 20 percent pay hike by 2020. But Arizona teachers, who are among the lowest paid in the country, say the governor has not identified how he would pay for it, and they say their schools are starving for funds after massive budget cuts since the Great Recession. According to the nonprofit group Arizona Schools Now, the Arizona legislature cut $1.5 billion in school funding while a 2016 voter-approved initiative has restored only 18 percent.”

The Center on Budget and Policy Priorities documents that Arizona is among 7 of the 12 states with deep cuts in education spending that have also cut personal or corporate income taxes since 2008.  Arizona has cut income taxes by 13.6 percent over the decade.

The NY TimesDana Goldstein adds: “The state has cut approximately $1 billion from schools since the 2008 recession, while also cutting taxes. It spent under $7,500 per pupil annually in 2015, the last year for which census data was available; only Utah and Idaho spent less.”

Goldstein describes the details of weeks of protests and negotiations that have led Governor Ducey to promise a salary increase. She also explains why teachers are skeptical that Ducey will be able to raise salaries without a tax increase, as he has promised—when there is no obvious ready source of revenue: “The vote in Arizona followed weeks of protest across the state and promises from the governor to raise salaries. The Arizona Education Association and Arizona Educators United (AEU), a group of teachers who organized independently on Facebook, said that 78 percent of the teachers and school workers who cast ballots supported a walkout.  The groups said the walkout would take place on April 26 if  legislators and the governor did not meet their demands, not only for a raise for teachers but also one for school support staff.  They also called for an end to tax cuts until Arizona’s per-pupil spending reaches the national average… Arizona has never before had a statewide teacher walkout, and has experienced only a handful of districtwide strikes over the past four decades.”

Goldstein briefly profiles several young teachers in their twenties and thirties who are making less than $40,000 per year: “In San Tan Valley, an exurban area an hour southeast of Phoenix, Mary Stavely… 34, earns $36,800. Thirteen of 38 teachers at her school, Circle Cross Ranch K-8 are planning to resign at the end of this academic year, she said, because of factors like low pay and a lack of rental housing in the area. ‘It directly affects students’ when teacher turnover is high, Ms. Stavely said, because children ‘lose morale and the connections that were made’ with caring adults. Ms. Stavely, a single mother, is currently living with her parents….”

The Arizona Republic’s Ricardo Cano reports about what many teachers regard as problems with Governor Ducey’s promised raise: “Organizers with AEU and the Arizona Education Association criticized Ducey’s plan, saying it left out support professionals, lacked funding details and didn’t address schools’ broader funding needs for things like reducing the number of students in each classroom, updating textbooks and purchasing new technology.”

The best explanation I’ve read about the meaning of this month’s walkouts by school teachers is the school finance primer published in yesterday’s NY Times from Nobel Prize winning economist Paul Krugman: “At the state and local levels, the conservative obsession with tax cuts has forced the G.O.P. into what amounts to a war on education, and in particular a war on schoolteachers… The federal government… is basically an insurance company with an army: nondefense spending is dominated by Social Security, Medicare and Medicaid. State and local governments, however, are basically school districts with police departments. Education accounts for more than half the state and local work force; protective services like police and fire departments account for the rest. So what happens when hard-line conservatives take over a state, as they did in much of the country after the 2010 Tea Party wave?  They almost invariably push through big tax cuts. Usually these tax cuts are sold with the promise that lower taxes will provide a huge boost to the state economy. This promise is, however, never—and I mean never—fulfilled….  What tax cuts do, instead, is sharply reduce revenue…. And given the centrality of education to state and local budgets, that puts schoolteachers in the cross hairs… At the national level, earnings of public-school teachers have fallen behind inflation since the mid-1990s, and have fallen even more behind the earnings of comparable workers.  At this point, teachers earn 23 percent less than other college graduates…. Meanwhile teachers’ benefits are also getting worse. In particular, teachers are having to pay a rising share of their health insurance premiums, a severe burden when their real earnings are declining at the same time.”

Here are two additional important commentaries on the meaning of this month’s teachers’ walkouts.

Writing for the American Prospect, Harold Meyerson views the walkouts by school teachers across all-Red states as a rejection of the anti-tax dogma that swept the country in the 2010 Tea Party wave: “The remarkable upsurge of teachers in Republican-run, largely non-union states that has swept through West Virginia and is now sweeping through Oklahoma and Kentucky, and is poised to descend on Arizona, has returned the mass strike to the United States after decades of relegation to the history books. In each of these states, the teachers unions have something between limited and no legal rights to bargain collectively, and correspondingly, represent just a hard core of members whose commitment to their union is more a matter of belief than of anticipated reward. And yet, able to mobilize even in non-union terrains through the use of social media, and outraged by their states’ continued opposition to funding public education, the teachers have leapt beyond law and formal organization to press their case… Indeed, what the Republican governors and legislators of Oklahoma, Kentucky, and Arizona are now discovering is that, contra the GOP’s Grover Norquist nostrums, their constituents actually don’t want a government so small it can be drowned in a bathtub.”

Finally, what does tomorrow’s walkout in Arizona say about overall education policy?  Not only has Arizona under-funded its public schools, but the state has been a leader in the push for school privatization.  The state has a large charter school sector and an education savings account-voucher program that Governor Ducey expanded last year to make all 1.1 million public school students in the state eligible, though an initial cap was set at 30,000. A grassroots coalition, Save Our Schools Arizona has garnered enough signatures for Proposition 305, a November referendum to stop the growth of the education savings account program, an expansion which would only further bankrupt the public school budget. A UCLA academic who has tracked public policy in education, Pedro Noguera believes this spring’s wave of community-supported walkouts by teachers as a sign that the public is turning away from accountability-based corporate school reform and education privatization:

“In many respects, the strikes are the culmination of a long-simmering response to the numerous attacks that have been directed at teachers and public education generally, under the guise of ‘reform.’ In several cities and states, Republicans, and in some cases Democrats, have promoted a package of measures—expansion of charter schools, vouchers, state takeover of school districts (primarily those that serve poor children of color)—that have undermined and weakened public education. The impact of these measures has been particularly devastating in cities where the reformers have sought to privatize and dismantle school systems they claimed were ‘failing.’ However, despite the vast amount of private-foundation and hedge-fund money behind them, these reformers are losing steam… It’s become clear that the fight over the future of public education is a major front in the fight over the future of American democracy.  The teachers’ strikes and the public support they’ve generated are a resounding affirmation that those who see a strong public education as critical to America’s future are not giving up.”


House Farm Bill Will Make Families Work 20 Hours a Week to Qualify for Food Stamps and Reduce Access to School Lunch

With voting along strict party lines, the U.S. House Agriculture Committee passed a 2018 Farm Bill out of committee last Wednesday, a bill which would add punitive work requirements curtailing families’ participation in the Supplemental Nutritional Assistance Program (SNAP), formerly known as food stamps.  Committee Chairman Rep. Mike Conaway has said he will bring the bill to the House floor for a vote in May.  The bill would not only reduce families’ access to SNAP, but it would also limit students’ access to free school lunch and breakfast programs.

Marc Egan, Director of Government Relations for the National Education Association, sent a letter to all members of the U.S. House of Representatives last week to urge them to vote NO on this bill when it comes before the full House next month.  Egan explains the implications for federally funded school meals: “This bill makes unnecessary changes to certification and eligibility requirements that could reduce the number of students eligible for free school meals… Children living in households that receive SNAP benefits are eligible to receive free school meals… Congress required all school districts participating in the National School Lunch Program to directly certify… (these) students for free school meals. H.R. 2 (the Farm Bill) undermines this important link in the 28 states that have chosen a broad based eligibility option under current SNAP rules…. (T)his would impact as many as 265,000 students nationwide.  Direct certification for SNAP also provides the foundation for the Community Eligibility Provision, a hugely successful option that allows over 20,000 high poverty schools to offer free breakfast and lunch to their students.  The provision eliminates the need for schools to collect and process school meal applications…. Schools are eligible to implement community eligibility if at least 40 percent of their students are certified to receive free school meals without submitting an application. Community eligibility schools are reimbursed based on the poverty within the school.”

Egan concludes: “Reducing the number of students who are directly certified by changing the rules for categorical eligibility means that fewer schools will be eligible to implement community eligibility, and many schools that are eligible will find that it is no longer financially viable, because fewer of their meals would be reimbursed at the free rate.”

The House version of the Farm Bill would also directly reduce SNAP eligibility for families by adding a work requirement. The Center on Budget and Policy Priorities (CBPP) explains: “Among its most significant proposals, the Chairman’s plan would impose new, nationwide mandatory work requirements on millions of SNAP participants.  It would require SNAP participants ages 18 through 59 who are not disabled or raising a child under 6 to prove—every month—they they’re working at least 20 hours a week, participating in at least 20 hours a week in a work program, or a combination of the two. The typical individual who would be subject to the new requirements receives about $150 or $185 a month in SNAP benefits. Those who can’t comply would face harsh sanctions—the first failure would mean a loss of benefits for 12 months; each subsequent failure would lock individuals out of the program for 36 months.”  CBPP adds that funding provided in the bill for training programs is insufficient to support SNAP recipients needing to work.  Additionally, many workers in low income jobs cannot control their schedules and the number of hours they may be assigned to work each month; such jobs too often provide sporadic employment. A SNAP recipient who is working might lose SNAP due to a layoff or scheduling problem the worker cannot control.

Schools serving students in families who depend on SNAP benefits, especially the schools where a large percentage of students need free breakfast and lunch, are the very schools whose students face a mass of other challenges—children who are homeless, in the children’s services system, or in families with unstable employment.  Such schools struggle, often without much of anyone’s noticing, when cuts in federal and state social services and health programs further stress the vulnerable families they serve.

Monday’s Washington Post featured Robert Samuels’ portrait of a Milwaukee family trying to survive in Scott Walker’s Wisconsin—an all-Red, tax slashing state that has modeled what Samuels describes as “the GOP model for ‘welfare reform.'” Samuels explains: “The way things are changing in Wisconsin—and around much of the country—is that lawmakers are embracing increasingly aggressive measures to move the poor out of the social safety net and into the workforce. In 2013, Wisconsin took a leading role in this trend when Gov. Scott Walker signed legislation requiring childless adults who aren’t disabled to work at least 20 hours a week to continue to qualify for food stamps. Those who didn’t do so were required to attend training programs scattered throughout the state until they could find a job. In February, the state took it a step further: Parents of school-age children will also have to work to receive food stamps. And instead of 20 hours, they must work at least 30.  ‘We will help people when they are down and out,’ Walker said in his State of the State address in January.  ‘But for those who are able, public assistance should be a trampoline, not a hammock.'”  The parents and two children in Samuels’ story are homeless and dependent on a car in need of major repairs. Both parents have worked sporadically, but struggle with desperation when a layoff occurs or the car breaks down and they cannot afford repairs.

Samuels reports that Wisconsin’s regulations limiting access to SNAP have increased desperation among Wisconsin’s poorest families: “State officials also said that more than 86,000 people have lost their ability to get food stamps and did not report getting new jobs.  There’s been no government study examining what happened to them. State officials say they presume some got new jobs and didn’t bother to report them, but advocates say they see swelling numbers at churches and food pantries where more and more people go looking for help.”

In their startling 2015 book on America’s deepest poverty, sociologists Kathryn Edin and H. Luke Shaefer describe deepening poverty among our society’s poorest families: “In early 2011, 1.5 million households with roughly 3 million children were surviving on cash incomes of no more than $2 per person, per day in any given month. That’s about one out of every twenty-five families with children in America. What’s more, not only were these figures astoundingly high, but the phenomenon of $2-a-day poverty among households with children had been on the rise since the nation’s landmark welfare reform legislation was passed in 1996—and at a distressingly fast pace. As of 2011, the number of families in $2-a-day poverty had more than doubled in just a decade and a half.” ($2.00 a Day: Living on Almost Nothing in America, p. xviii)

Edin and Shaefer also highlight the essential role of SNAP: “One piece of good news in these findings was that the government safety net was helping at least some households. When Shaefer added in SNAP as if it were cash—a problematic assumption because SNAP cannot legally be converted to cash, so it can’t be used to pay the light bill, the rent, or buy a bus pass—the number of families living in $2-a-day poverty fell by about half. This vital in-kind government program was clearly reaching many, though not all of the poorest of the poor.  Even counting SNAP as cash, though, Shaefer found that the increase in the number of families with children living in $2-a-day poverty remained large—up 70 percent in fifteen years…  A look at government data on those receiving SNAP revealed a large increase in the number of families with no other source of income. And reports from the nation’s public schools showed that more and more children were facing homelessness.  Taken together, these findings seemed to confirm the rise of a new form of poverty that defies every assumption about economic, political, and social progress made over the past three decades.”  ($2.00 a Day: Living on Almost Nothing in America, p. xviii)

The Farm Bill coming out of the House Agricultural Committee will hurt poor children, their families, and their public schools. All this is why the National Education Association is asking its members to send its action alert asking members of the U.S. House of Representatives to vote against the Farm Bill that was passed out of committee last week.  You might also want to send NEA’s action alert to your Congressional representative.

NYC Public Schools Serve 111,500 Homeless Students. What Does This Mean?

When Matthew Desmond, author of the Pulitzer Prize winning book Evicted: Poverty and Profit in the American City, spoke in Cleveland last month, he began his address with these words that introduce one of the book’s final chapters: “The home is the center of life. It is a refuge from the grind of work, the pressure of school, and the menace of the streets. We say that at home, we can ‘be ourselves.’…  At home, we remove our masks. The home is the wellspring of personhood. It is where our identity takes root and blossoms, where as children, we imagine, play, and question, and as adolescents, we retreat and try. As we grow older, we hope to settle into a place to raise a family or pursue work… In languages spoken all over the world, the word for ‘home’ encompasses not just shelter but warmth, safety, family—the womb.  The ancient Egyptian hieroglyph for ‘home’ was often used in place of ‘mother.’  The Chinese word jia can mean both family and home. ‘Shelter’ comes from two Old English words: scield (shield) and truma (troop), together forming the image of a family gathering itself within a protective shell.” (Evicted, p. 293)

When children lack a permanent home, the upheaval in their personal lives affects their schools. Some of the details emerge in new reporting from New York City’s public schools. New York City’s 1,800 public schools serve 1.1 million students. Last week the NY TimesElizabeth Harris reported: “More than 111,500 New York City students were homeless at some point last year, whether they were staying in a shelter, in a hotel or with family and friends… The upheaval of homelessness means those children are often anxious and traumatized, and that their parents are as well. Many of them travel long distances from where they sleep to school in the morning, leaving them exhausted before the day begins.  Drained and frightened, they bring all of that with them to school… The (city’s education) department said that during the 2016-17 school year, homeless students accounted for 13 percent of all suspensions….”

A report last month from Advocates for Children of New York on homelessness among the school district’s students puts the size, scope, and meaning of the challenges for children and for the school district in perspective: “If these students made up their own school district, it would be one of the thirty largest districts in the nation, with twice the number of students as the entire Boston public school system. In New York City, students in temporary housing have worse educational outcomes than their permanently housed peers…. Outcomes are particularly bleak for students living in New York City shelters—38,000 students during the 2016-2017 school year.  For example, during the 2015-2016 school year:  53% of NYC students living in shelters were absent on 20 or more school days—missing the equivalent of one month of school. Only 15% of third through eighth grade students living in shelters scored proficiently in reading. Only 12%… in math.”

Advocates for Children explains: “Homelessness can create a chaotic living environment where students are exposed to high levels of stress. In addition to the trauma of housing loss, children may have been exposed to other traumatic experiences, such as domestic violence, which is now the primary driver of homelessness in New York City. Homelessness uproots children from their systems of support and care, which may include relatives, friends, teachers, service providers, medical providers, and mental health providers.  Families who are homeless must balance competing priorities including juggling multiple social services appointments and the search for permanent housing. These stressors exacerbate the challenges that children living in poverty already face. While school can serve as a key source of stability for students, the City places most families in shelters far outside their neighborhood. Last year, only 50% of families were placed in the same borough… where their youngest child had been attending school prior to the family entering shelter.  As a result, families must decide between long commutes to school and transferring schools.”

Everyone wants better services for homeless children, to reduce their trauma, reduce chronic absence and cut the number of disciplinary problems and suspensions. Coordination between the school district and the city’s enormous social service bureaucracy is chronically difficult. And the needs of homeless children compete for budget dollars with the needs of all kinds of other students. What is clear is that the magnitude and rapid growth of homelessness in NYC have complicated the district’s capacity to respond. In mid-March, the NY Times’ Elizabeth Harris reported: “After rising steadily for about five years, the number of homeless students in New York City public schools jumped up in the 2015-16 school year to the somber threshold of 100,000 students. Then it took another leap: More than 111,500 students were homeless at some point during the 2016-17 school year… The education department has rules and employees in place, both in schools and in shelters, to try to minimize student absences. But the comptroller’s office found that in many cases, protocols weren’t followed, seemingly because those charged with trying to keep children in schools were overwhelmed.  During the 2015-16 school year, there were 110 family assistance workers responsible for helping the 32,243 students in city shelters—giving them an average caseload of 293 children each.”

In addition to placing education staff in the shelters to help support children’s placement in and adjustment to school, staff at school provide targeted services. Harris describes some of these efforts at Frederick Douglass II middle school, which has been trying to reduce suspensions among homeless students: “Frederick Douglass II has had an additional full-time social worker since last year, and the parent coordinator has attended training on how to better support homeless families. The school has had a mental health clinic on site since the 2015-16 school year.”

This month, Richard A. Carranza replaced recently retired Carmen Farina as the new Chancellor of NYC’s public schools. Advocates for Children urges Carranza and Mayor Bill de Blasio to increase staffing significantly—appointing a deputy chancellor to address the growing needs of homeless students. Advocates for Children also recommends doubling the number of school social workers and installing at least 50 new school social workers in the city’s shelters to coordinate with school staff to meet children’s needs. NYC’s Comptroller Scott Stringer adds that improvements are needed in the school district’s electronic data system to ensure that school staff can better track students who are chronically absent from school.

It is important for blogs like this one to report on the magnitude of poverty and homelessness in school districts like New York City’s. The No Child Left Behind Act mandated annual achievement testing for all children in grades 3-8 and once in high school.  The law also established sanctions—punishments—for public schools unable quickly to raise scores.  So-called failing schools were subjected to a range of turnarounds—fire the principal and teachers—close the school—charterize the school.

None of these so-called “solutions” has addressed the kind of challenge posed by massive homelessness in New York City and across America’s cities. What’s clear in New York City is that many students in the public schools face overwhelming obstacles from social conditions the schools cannot themselves control.  Extreme poverty and homeless among students, in turn, pose enormous challenges for teachers, counselors and social workers. How can our society set a universal standard of public school “success” or “failure” when schools in wealthy suburbs and schools in impoverished communities face such disparate circumstances?  Our society owes impoverished and homeless students, their families, and their schools far greater support.

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.

While Teachers’ Walkouts Highlight Inadequate Funding of Schools, Inequity Remains Unaddressed

This blog has recently been tracking the walkouts of teachers in states where legislators have been chronically underfunding public education, states where teachers’ pay ranks among the lowest in the nation.  (See here, hereherehere and here.) These are states in the heartland, many where the children and the teachers are mostly white.  The walkouts by teachers have been happening in all Red states that lack political checks and balances because their governors and both houses of their legislatures are dominated by far-right Republicans.  Schoolteachers are walking out to call their legislators’ attention to the fact that rampant tax cutting is cheating the children. These teachers are calling everybody’s attention to the plain fact that in these states funding for the public schools has been dropping.  The recent walkouts by teachers have put a face on the problem of inadequate school funding.

But there is another very different school funding problem across America.  Very often it is a problem not centered in the capital city of the state—the place where the legislature meets.  In Michigan where Lansing is the capital city, this problem is greatest in Detroit. In New York, where Albany is the capital city, this problem centers in New York City, Syracuse and Buffalo.  In Wisconsin, where Madison is the capital city, this problem centers in Milwaukee. And in Illinois, where Springfield is the capital city, this problem is most serious in Chicago.  This other problem, of course, is alarming school finance inequity, exacerbated when legislators from rural areas and small towns fail to grasp the challenges for children and teachers in the schools of our largest cities, all of them segregated by race, all of them struggling with concentrated poverty, and virtually all of them encircled by rings of wealthy suburban school districts.

This is, of course, not a new problem. In 1991, Jonathan Kozol lamented: “‘In a country where there is no distinction of class,’ Lord Acton wrote of the United States 130 years ago, ‘a child is not born to the station of its parents, but with an indefinite claim to all the prizes that can be won by thought and labor. It is in conformity with the theory of equality… to give as near as possible to every youth an equal state in life.’ Americans, he said, ‘are unwilling that any should be deprived in childhood of the means of competition.’  It is hard to read these words today without a sense of irony and sadness.  Denial of ‘the means of competition’ is perhaps the single most consistent outcome of the education offered to poor children in the schools of our large cities….” (Savage Inequalities, p. 83)

In the introduction to a 2005 edition of his landmark 1996 history of Detroit, Thomas Sugrue explores what he calls “the urban crisis”: “It is dangerous to let our optimism about urban revitalization obscure the grim realities that still face most urban residents, particularly people of color. Acres of rundown houses, abandoned factories, vacant lots, and shuttered stores stand untended in the shadow of revitalized downtowns and hip urban enclaves. There has been very little ‘trickle down’ from downtown revitalization and neighborhood gentrification to the long-term poor, the urban working class, and minorities…. And despite some conspicuous successes–often against formidable odds—community development corporations have made only a small dent in the urban economies and housing markets. Local nonprofits have the will but ultimately not the capacity to stem the larger processes of capital flight that have devastated the city… American cities have long reflected the hopes as well as the failures of the society at large. From the mid-twentieth century to the present, American society has been characterized by a widening gap between rich and poor, between communities of privilege and those of poverty. Despite a rhetoric about race relations that is more civil than it was in 1950, racial divisions by income, wealth, education, employment, health, and political power remain deeply entrenched.” (The Origins of the Urban Crisis: Race and Inequality in Postwar Detroit, pp. xxv-xxvi)

In 2011, the Stanford University sociologist, Sean Reardon, used a massive data set to document the widening economic inequality that Kozol and Sugrue had been describing and to show the consequences of widening inequality for children’s outcomes at school. Reardon showed that while in 1970, only 15 percent of families lived in neighborhoods classified as affluent or poor, by 2007, 31 percent of families lived in such neighborhoods. By 2007, fewer families across America lived in mixed income communities. Reardon also demonstrated that along with growing residential inequality is a simultaneous jump in an income-inequality school achievement gap. The achievement gap between the children with income in the top ten percent and the children with income in the bottom ten percent, was 30-40 percent wider among children born in 2001 than those born in 1975, and twice as large as the black-white achievement gap.

So, what did our society do to respond?  In 2002, Congress passed the No Child Left Behind Act, which demanded that states test students every year and use the scores to evaluate schools and their teachers. Punitive turnarounds were prescribed for the bottom five percent of schools—virtually always in the poorest neighborhood of our cities where poverty is concentrated—and those turnarounds included firing principals and teachers, closing schools, or charterizing them. The law operated through threats and punishments for schools unable to raise scores quickly without acknowledging that such schools might need greater investment to build the capacity and services so that the schools themselves would not be overwhelmed by the challenges brought by concentrations of children struggling with extreme poverty.

In an extremely important 2017 book, Harvard professor Daniel Koretz describes nearly two decades of damage wrought by this test-and-punish law, which was premised on the belief that, if sufficiently pressured to raise test scores, teachers would be able to do so: The law’s framers “acted as if… (schools alone could) largely eliminate variations in student achievement, ignoring the impact of factors that have nothing to do with the behavior of educators—for example, the behavior of parents, students’ health and nutrition, and many characteristics of the communities in which students grow up.” (The Testing Charade; Pretending to Make Schools Better, p. 123-124) “One aspect of the great inequity of the American educational system is that disadvantaged kids tend to be clustered in the same schools. The causes are complex, but the result is simple: some schools have far lower average scores…. Therefore, if one requires that all students must hit the proficient target by a certain date, these low-scoring schools will face far more demanding targets for gains than other schools do. This was not an accidental byproduct of the notion that ‘all children can learn to a high level.’ It was a deliberate and prominent part of many of the test-based accountability reforms…. Unfortunately… it seems that no one asked for evidence that these ambitious targets for gains were realistic. The specific targets were often an automatic consequence of where the Proficient standard was placed and the length of time schools were given to bring all students to that standard, which are both arbitrary.” (The Testing Charade; Pretending to Make Schools Better, pp. 129-130)

Bill Mathis and Kevin Welner summarize the way our society responded when, despite widening inequality and growing economic and racial segregation, federal law imposed sanctions and turnarounds on urban public schools: “As policy makers and the courts abandoned desegregation efforts and wealth moved from cities to the suburbs, most of the nation’s major cities developed communities of concentrated poverty, and policy makers gave the school districts serving those cities the task of overcoming the opportunity gaps created by that poverty.  Moreover districts were asked to do this with greatly inadequate funding.  The nation’s highest poverty school districts receive ten percent lower funding per student while districts serving children of color receive 15 percent less.  This approach, of relying on under-resourced urban districts to remedy larger societal inequities, has consistently failed.  In response, equity-focused reformers have called for a comprehensive redirection of policy and a serious attempt to address concentrated poverty as a vital companion to school reform.  But this would require a major and sustained investment.  Avoiding such a commitment, a different approach has therefore been offered: change the governance structure of urban school districts.  Proposals such as ‘mayoral control,’ ‘portfolio districts,’ and ‘recovery’ districts (also referred to as ‘takeover’ or ‘achievement’ districts) all fit within this line of attack.” (“The ‘Portfolio’ Approach to School District Governance,” a brief that is part of a 2016 series from the National Education Policy Center, Research-Based Options for Education Policymaking)

Just as in today’s battles for education funding—in West Virginia, Oklahoma, and Kentucky—teachers have pushed back against the punitive school turnaround policies promoted by the federal government during the George W. Bush and Barack Obama administrations. In one memorable instance, a teachers union courageously confronted underfunded school “reform” based on school turnaround through school closure.  In the fall of 2012, the Chicago Teachers Union, having worked closely with parents and community groups across the city, went on strike to protest not only teachers’ salaries and benefits, but also Illinois’s notoriously inequitable school funding, and also the power of mayoral governance under Rahm Emanuel and his prescribed “portfolio” school reform plan.  In her book, The Teacher Wars, Dana Goldstein describes the leadership of CTU president Karen Lewis: “Lewis called Mayor Rahm Emanuel’s reform agenda—especially his policy of using low test scores to select fifty schools for closure in poor neighborhoods, sometimes replacing them with non-unionized charter schools—‘a corporate attack on public education… This is warfare now.’ ” (The Teacher Wars, p. 221)

We must hope that this month’s walkouts by teachers create enough pressure to force legislators to raise school funding that is adequate to the need to invest in schools and in teachers’ salaries in West Virginia, Oklahoma, and Kentucky. The problem of inequity, however, is more daunting. Despite an enormous body of scholarly research and writing by academics and despite decades of work by social justice activists and organizers, we have not developed the political will to distribute sufficient funding to meet the needs of public schools in urban communities where poverty is concentrated.  The Kerner Commission named the problem of inequity 50 years ago:  “No American-white or black-can escape the consequences of the continuing social and economic decay of our major cities. Only a commitment to national action on an unprecedented scale can shape a future compatible with the historic ideals of American society. The great productivity of our economy, and a federal revenue system which is highly responsive to economic growth, can provide the resources. The major need is to generate new will–the will to tax ourselves to the extent necessary, to meet the vital needs of the nation.”

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.

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.”