Summer weather is being intensified by the heat of the state budget season—a time when, in too many places, the cost of tax cutting and privatization of the public schools is being represented clearly in dollars and cents. And today’s attack on the common good is bipartisan.
A new report shows that New York’s Democratic governor, Andrew Cuomo, and the NY legislature have been the target of $13 million in lobbying in the past year to push the expansion of charters and a tuition tax credit voucher program—both hot topics in NY’s budget debate—with Cuomo leading the charge for privatization and vouchers.
Another report explores the impact of pro-charter school lobbying on the Democratic governor of Connecticut, Dan Malloy—money from people like Jonathan Sackler, who made his fortune producing Oxycontin at Purdue Pharma, and who is the founder of ConCAN (which is part of a nationwide, Sackler supported, coalition of far-right privatizers, 50-CAN). In an opinion piece in the Stamford Advocate, Wendy Lecker explains: “Governor Malloy’s tenure has been characterized by denigrating teachers, vigorously opposing adequate funding of public schools and vastly increasing financial support for privately run charter schools…. Why would Malloy favor these questionable privately run schools over underfunded public schools?… The web of charter money is so thick it must have blinded Malloy to the needs and wishes of constituents from Stamford and Bridgeport.”
And in the middle of the country, Kansas Governor Sam Brownback, a Republican and radical income-tax slasher, was forced to raise sales and cigarette taxes to keep the state from going broke—the predictable result of his deep income tax cuts enacted last year. No matter that regressive sales and cigarette taxes eat up a larger percentage of the income of poor people, Brownback had bragged about his adherence to far-right orthodoxy, in his belief that the income tax cuts that have left his state on the verge of bankruptcy will eventually grow the economy. John Hanna explains in an Associated Press report: “Kansas found itself in such a deep budget hole because the tax cuts implemented in 2013 initially led to a steep fall in revenue that has still not reversed as much as Brownback had hoped. For the fiscal year beginning next month, the state estimated in mid-April that it would face a shortfall of 12 percent of its general fund budget.” Hanna explains further: “Brownback and his GOP allies managed to avoid backtracking on past reductions on income tax rates… Instead, they raised the state’s sales tax to one of the highest rates in the nation and smokers will be paying 50 cents more for each pack of cigarettes. Republican legislators cobbled together a mix of tax policies to both balance the budget and attract just enough votes for passage, but it’s not yet clear whether they’ve created long-term fiscal stability.” A number of school districts in the state had been forced to cut weeks off the school year this spring when the state suddenly was unable to provide funding that had been previously allocated and promised.
In this context, what just happened in California looks pretty encouraging. Democratic Governor Jerry Brown and the California legislature just agreed on a budget that increases spending for education at all levels. California’s state fiscal capacity continues to benefit from the four-year Proposition 30, passed in November of 2012 specifically to pay for education. Proposition 30 increased income tax rates for joint filers earning over $500,000 per year and single filers earning $250,000 per year, and it increased sales taxes for four years by a quarter of a cent.
At least until the four-year Proposition 30 ends, California has the capacity to increase education funding, and the new budget agreement does just that. As reported by John Fensterwald for EdSource, the new agreement between Governor Brown and the legislature adds $6.1 billion (on top of last year’s 13.2 percent increase) for general funding for public education through the Local Control Funding Formula: “That’s an average of $1,088 more per student for an average district, in which 63 percent of English learners and low-income children receive extra money under the formula.” The agreement also allocates $500 million this year for staff development for teachers. It adds over $1 billion over three years for career and technical education. It provides $60 million in new funding for interventions to support toddlers who have special needs. It adds $10 million to increase counseling and tutoring for children in foster care. It provides $7.9 billion this year for community colleges, a $700 million increase from last year. Finally it provides $4 billion for debt repayment: “This includes $3 billion for unpaid state mandates and $1 billion in the final repayment for deferrals—late payments that required schools to borrow money.”
Having frozen local property-taxing capacity in 1978 with Proposition 13 and, over time, reduced the state’s investment in education, California has desperately needed to increase its budget for education. In 2012 just before Governor Jerry Brown pushed through Proposition 30, according to the Education Law Center, California was spending only $8, 218 per pupil (when the average expenditure per pupil across the states was $11,110 ) and ranking 41st among the 50 states. In a commentary back in November of 2012 immediately after passage of Proposition 30, Molly Hunter of the Education Law Center commented on what had been the deplorable level of tax effort in California: “Not surprisingly, California received an ‘F’ on fiscal effort. This measures the percentage of the state’s fiscal capacity that is spent on education. California, despite its enormous economy and relatively high fiscal capacity, devotes a small proportion of its wealth and economic vibrancy to public education.”
California continues to face serious problems in education funding. John Fensterwald comments: “The fat budget years for education are expected to level off with the expiration of temporary taxes under Proposition 30. Surging revenues have enabled the state to pay back most of the more than $10 billion… owed to districts in past years…. But districts are still owed $700 million, and that amount is expected to grow post Prop. 30.”
While for years to come California will grapple with a legacy of disastrous cuts to state and local funding of schools, at least this year Jerry Brown deserves credit for leadership in talking about the need to fund public services that serve California’s children from pre-school through the K-12 years and into community colleges. His declared support for public education, with dollars allocated to prove it, is refreshing.