A Primer for the Public Education Voter in this Fall’s Midterm Election

The midterm election is only weeks away. The airwaves are filled with attack ads that sensationalize and distort the issues.  Even in states where public education has not emerged as a central issue, it ought to be, because K-12 education and higher education are among the biggest lines in every state’s budget.  Without naming states and without naming candidates or particular ballot issues, today’s blog will serve as a voters’ primer about what to consider on November 6, if you think of yourself a public education voter. These reports present simple information about each state.  If a candidate for your legislature or governor, for example, claims to be an “education” candidate, having invested significantly in education, you can check his or her promises against the facts.  I hope you’ll take a look at how your state has been supporting or failing to support the mass of children who attend public schools and the teachers who serve them.

The Network for Public Education and the Schott Foundation for Public Education put the importance of public schools into perspective: “In fact, the overwhelming majority of students in this country continue to attend public schools with total public school enrollment in prekindergarten through grade 12 projected to increase by 3 percent from 50.3 million to 51.7 million students. This compares with a 6% enrollment in charter schools and a 10.2% enrollment in private schools, with the majority (75% of private school students) attending religious private schools.”

In 1899, the philosopher of education, John Dewey explained the public purpose of education: “What the best and wisest parent wants for his own child, that must the community want for all of its children… Only by being true to the full growth of all the individuals who make it up, can society by any chance be true to itself.” (The School and Society, p. 1)

Public schools are the institutions most likely to balance the needs of each particular child and family with a system that secures the rights and addresses the needs of all children.  Public schools are publicly owned, publicly funded, and democratically governed under law.  Because public schools are responsible to the public, it is possible through elected school boards, open meetings, transparent record keeping and redress through the courts to ensure that public schools provide access for all children. No school is likely to perfectly serve all children, but because public schools are subject to government regulation under law, our society has been able to protect the right to an education for an ever growing number of children over the generations.

Key Resources for Voters in Fall, 2018—Public School Funding

The current decade began as the Great Recession devastated state budgets. While some states have recovered, many have struggled, and some have further cut taxes.  The Center on Budget and Policy Priorities’ most recent update on public K-12 funding across the states is A Punishing Decade for School Funding, dated November 29, 2017.  This is the essential annual report comparing public K-12 investment across the states. The numbers remain discouraging: We learn that 29 states continue to provide less total state funding for public schools than they did in 2008, prior to the Great Recession. The Center on Budget and Policy Priorities also just released its annual report on higher education funding: Unkept Promises: State Cuts to Higher Education Threaten Access and Equity, which notes that in 31 states, per-student funding for public colleges and universities dropped between 2017 and 2018, while average tuition has continued to rise. Along with its report on higher education, CBPP even provides an online tool by which you can call up a short, detailed brief on higher education funding trends in each state.

In May of this year, the American Federation of Teachers published its own fine report on funding of public education across the states, A Decade of Neglect, which concluded: “(C)uts states have made since the Great Recession have led to reduced student math and English achievement, and this was most severe for school districts serving more low-income and minority students, especially in districts that saw large reductions in the numbers of teachers.”  The report describes overall trends followed by a series of two page briefs summarizing and presenting graphically the public school funding trend in each state since the 2004-2005 school year.

Key Resource for Voters in Fall, 2018—Marketplace School Privatization Undermines Democracy and Robs Public Schools of Essential Resources

In his 2007 book, Consumed, the late political philosopher Benjamin Barber reflects on the commodification of public institutions: “It is the peculiar toxicity of privatization ideology that it rationalizes corrosive private choosing as a surrogate for the public good.  It enthuses about consumers as the new citizens who can do more with their dollars… than they ever did with their votes. It associates the privileged market sector with liberty as private choice while it condemns democratic government as coercive.” (Consumed, p. 143)

Not only is school privatization undemocratic, but it also drains state funding away from public school districts into charter schools and various kinds of tuition vouchers for private school. School privatization laws differ across the states along with the amount of money driven out of state public education budgets into the various school privatization schemes. In June of this year, the Network for Public Education and the Schott Foundation for Public Education jointly published Grading the States: A Report Card on Our Nation’s Commitment to Public Schools. The report’s introduction states its purpose: “States are rated on the extent to which they have instituted policies and practices that lead toward fewer democratic opportunities and more privatization, as well as the guardrails they have (or have not) put into place to protect the rights of students, communities and taxpayers. The report ranks the states by the degree to which they have privatized education.

Barber summarizes privatization’s corrosive role—fragmenting and undermining our society: “Privatization is a kind of reverse social contract: it dissolves the bonds that tie us together into free communities and democratic republics. It puts us back in the state of nature where we possess a natural right to get whatever we can on our own, but at the same time lose any real ability to secure that to which we have a right. Private choices rest on individual power… personal skills… and personal luck.  Public choices rest on civic rights and common responsibilities, and presume equal rights for all. Public liberty is what the power of common endeavor establishes, and hence presupposes that we have constituted ourselves as public citizens by opting into the social contract. With privatization, we are seduced back into the state of nature by the lure of private liberty and particular interest; but what we experience in the end is an environment in which the strong dominate the weak… the very dilemma which the original social contract was intended to address.” (Consumed, pp. 143-144)

As you vote in this fall’s election, please consider the resources suggested here as well as the principles that define public education’s public role in our society.

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Adequate and Equitable School Funding: Are These Goals Unreachable in America?

As we begin another school year, here is a review of an unexciting but essential subject: the basics of school finance. While many of our legislatures don’t seem to be dealing with this subject much these days, and in many states there just isn’t enough money because taxes have been slashed, we do need to keep some basic concepts in mind.  Two principles are key: adequacy and equity.

  • Adequate school funding involves two questions: “How much is enough?” and “Are we spending enough?”Adequacy of school funding is part of state budget debates as well as discussions of the school formula.
  • Equitable school funding involves this question: “Are we distributing state—and to a much smaller degree, federal funds—to compensate for local school districts’ very uneven capacity to generate school revenue?  Equitable school funding depends on distribution formulas—the state school finance formulas set up to meet the requirements of the 50 state constitutions, and the much smaller federal Title I formula, which distributes a relatively small amount across all the states.

In a recent report, the Senior Director of State Fiscal Research at the Center on Budget and Policy Priorities, Michael Leachman demonstrates that, in the summer of 2018, funding of public schools remains inadequate in a number of states: “Some 47 percent of school funding comes from states.” “Nationally, combined state and local funding for K-12 schools has finally recovered from deep cuts made during the Great Recession, but some states still haven’t restored funding…. At least 12 states have cut ‘general’ or ‘formula’ funding—the primary form of state support for elementary and secondary schools—by 7 percent or more per student since 2008 before the recession took hold.  Seven of these states have also cut income taxes over the last decade, making it particularly hard for them to raise revenue needed for their schools. (Arizona, Idaho, Kansas, Michigan, Mississippi, North Carolina and Oklahoma.)”

Leachman continues, examining trends in local school district funding: “Some 45 percent of school funding comes from localities…. Local funding per student fell in 19 states between the 2008 and 2016 school years… after adjusting for inflation.”

Leachman adds a further statistic related to inadequate funding, a fact which ought to be alarming: “The number of school workers—including teachers, librarians, nurses, and other staff—has fallen by about 158,000 since 2008, even as the number of enrolled children has risen by about 1.4 million.”

Recently, for example, it was reported that in cash-poor Arizona’s public schools, the number of school counselors per student has fallen to an alarming level, according to new data from the American School Counselor Association. The Arizona Republic reports: “Arizona worst in nation: Arizona’s student-to-school-counselor ratio is the highest in the nation, averaging 903 students to every one counselor in public schools in the 2015-16 school year…  Arizona held a 743-1 ratio a decade ago, but climbed as high as 941-1 in the post-recession years before slowly improving… The improved ratio—still more than three times the recommended number—has been a sticking point for Arizona’s March for Our Lives student and #RedForEd teacher movements… The American School Counselor Association recommends a student-to-counselor ratio of 250-1…. Only New Hampshire, Wyoming and Vermont had ratios within that range…. Michigan comes closest to Arizona with a 744-1 ratio. The national average is 464-to-1.”

In July, in a brief for the Learning Policy Institute, the Rutgers University school finance expert Bruce Baker confirms that the most important, and incidentally the most expensive, school investments are for teachers, counselors and other school staff who serve children.  Baker focuses on teachers: “Greater overall investment in education typically results in more intensive staffing per pupil and/or more investment in teacher salaries. Investments in more and higher quality teachers are, in turn, related to higher learning outcomes for all children.” “Increased funding tends to lead to reduced class sizes as districts hire more teachers, and to more competitive teacher salaries.  A significant body of research points to the effectiveness of class size reduction for improving student outcomes and reducing gaps among students, especially for younger students and those who have been previously low achieving.  Often studies find that the effects of class size reduction on achievement are greatest when certain smaller class thresholds (such as 15 or 18) are reached, and are most pronounced for students of color and those in schools serving concentrations of students in poverty.”

Federal funding, which comprises only 8 percent of all dollars spent on public education, has fallen over the past decade—a fact that signifies inattention by Congress and recent administrations not only to the need for adequate funding but also to its equitable distribution. Funding for the Individuals with Disabilities Education Act, because it is a huge federal mandate, affects the general fund budgets of the nation’s 13,506 public school districts. When IDEA was passed in 1975, Congress promised to cover 40 percent of the cost, but the federal government has never paid more than 19 percent.  The federal government’s other primary role in funding K-12 schools—Title I—is intended to promote equity—to compensate to some degree for the fact that when state and local funding are combined, more money continues to flow to the schools serving children in wealthy communities and not to the nation’s poorest schools.  Always underfunded, Title I has fallen even further behind over the past decade. The Center on Budget and Policy Priorities’ Michael Leachman explains: “The largest federal education program, ‘Title I’ funding for high-poverty schools, is 5 percent below its 2008 level after adjusting for inflation.”

In  an earlier brief last February, Bruce Baker describes the plight of the local school districts serving society’s poorest children: “Most states fall below the funding levels necessary for their highest poverty children to achieve the relatively modest goal of national average student outcomes.  High-poverty school districts in several states fall thousands to tens of thousands dollars short, per pupil….  In several states—notably Arizona, Mississippi, Alabama and California—the highest poverty school districts fall as much as $14,000 to $16,000 per pupil below necessary spending levels… Only a handful of states—including New Jersey and Massachusetts—are doing substantially better than others in terms of the average level of funding provided across districts in each poverty quintile.”

In an extraordinary book, Final Test, California’s Peter Schrag quotes a deposition from a high school student as part California’s Williams school funding court case. The book was published in 2003, but Alondra Jones’ deposition continues to speak to a society where school funding inequity remains the norm.  A student at San Francisco’s Balboa High School, Jones had recently visited Marin Academy, a better funded school, and she describes the difference:

“You know what, in all honesty, I’m going to break something down to you. It makes you feel less about yourself, you know, like you sitting here in a class where you have to stand up because there’s not enough chairs, and you see rats in the building, the bathrooms is nasty…. Like I said, I visited Marin Academy, and these students, if they want to sit on the floor, that’s because they choose to. And that just makes me feel less about myself because it’s like the state don’t care about public schools…. And I already feel that way because I stay in a group home because of poverty. Why do I have to feel like that when I go to school?” (Final Test, p. 21)

Tax Slashing Predictably Reduces Government’s Capacity to Do Its Job

Commenting for the NY Times yesterday on the tax reform bill being rushed through Congress, Peter Goodman and Patricia Cohen explain: “The tax plan has been marketed by President Trump and Republican leaders as a straightforward if enormous rebate for the masses, a $1.5 trillion package of cuts to spur hiring and economic growth. But as the bill has been rushed through Congress with scant debate, its far broader ramifications have come into focus, revealing a catchall legislative creation that could reshape major areas of American life, from education to health care.”

This warning about the persistent effort to reduce government should frighten those of us who worry about government’s capacity to educate the 50 million children and adolescents who fill public schools across our states. Perhaps you are taking comfort in the fact that fiscal responsibility for schools is shared by local, state, and federal governments, but it isn’t really that simple. What happens at the top—the federal level—or at the middle level, in your state—or in your local school district’s passage or failure of your most recent school levy is tightly woven together with the funding at other levels. On Wednesday, the Center on Budget and Policy Priorities released A Punishing Decade for School Funding, the latest in its annual bird’s eye surveys of what is being spent across the United States on K-12 public education.  This latest report comes a decade after the Great Recession caused tax collections to collapse across many states. The report examines whether and to what degree states and their public schools have been able to recover.

The Center on Budget and Policy Priorities (CBPP) emphasizes the essential concept of interconnectedness. Public education is primarily a state function; schools are established by the 50 state constitutions, not the federal constitution. Forty-seven percent of money for public schools is provided through taxation by state governments; 45 percent of school funding comes from local school taxes; and only 8 percent is currently provided by the federal government. The number of students enrolled has grown in the decade when the Great Recession hit in 2008: “(W)hile the number of public K-12 teachers and other school workers has fallen by 135,000 since 2008, the number of students has risen by 1,419,000.”

So… what has happened to cause the number of teachers to fall even as the number of students has risen?  “When the Great Recession hit… property values fell sharply, making it hard for school districts to raise local property taxes—schools’ primary local funding source—without raising rates, which is politically challenging even in good times. Raising rates was particularly difficult during a severe recession with steep declines in housing values in many areas.  As a result, local funding for schools fell after the recession took hold, exacerbating the even steeper fall in state funding.”

State funding has not caught up (when adjusted for inflation): “In 29 states, total state funding per student was lower in the 2015 school year (the most recent year for which data is available) than in the 2008 school year, before the recession took hold.  In 17 states, the cut was 10 percent or more.  In 19 states, local funding per student fell over the same period. In the other 29 states for which we have data local funding rose, but those increases usually did not make up for cuts in state support. In 29 states, total state and local funding combined fell between the 2008 and 2015 school years.”

And even before we learn what will happen with the current tax-reform bill being considered by Congress this week, we learn from CPBB that, “Federal policy makers have cut ongoing federal funding for states and localities—outside of Medicaid—in recent years, thereby worsening state fiscal conditions. The part of the federal budget that includes most forms of funding for states and localities… known as non-defense ‘discretionary’ funding (that is, funding that is annually appropriated by Congress), is near record lows as a share of the economy. Federal spending for Title I—the major federal assistance program for high-poverty schools—is down 6.2 percent since 2008, after adjusting for inflation.”

Authors of CBPP’s new report cite peer-reviewed research by C. Kirabo Jackson, Rucker Johnson and Claudia Persico, scholars at Northwestern University and the University of California at Berkeley, who tracked the long-term impact on children of their school district’s funding level: “As common sense suggests—and academic research confirms—money matters for educational outcomes. For instance, poor children who attend better-funded schools are more likely to complete high school and have higher earnings and lower poverty rates in adulthood.” Here are the learning essentials the CBPP report attributes to adequate school funding: recruiting, developing, and retaining high-quality teachers; trimming class size; and expanding learning time. Nothing fancy here: These are basic but very expensive fundamentals.

Why has spending on K-12 public education in many places never caught up to where it was in 2007?  The CBPP reports: “States disproportionately relied on spending cuts to close their large budget shortfalls after the recession hit, rather than a more balanced mix of spending cuts and revenue increases… State revenues have been hurt this year and last by a variety of factors, including falling oil prices, delayed sales of capital, and sluggish sales tax growth.”

Finally and not surprisingly, “Some states cut taxes deeply. Not only did many states avoid raising new revenue after the recession hit, but some enacted large tax cuts, further reducing revenues. Seven of the 12 states with the biggest cuts in general school funding since 2008—Arizona, Idaho, Kansas, Michigan, Mississippi, North Carolina, and Oklahoma—have also cut income tax rates in recent years.”

Austerity government and tax slashing—the reality in too many states in recent years—ought to serve as a warning to us all as Congress considers big reductions in federal taxes. There will inevitably be serious consequences for people who depend on government for things like healthcare and education.

Budget Expert, Robert Greenstein Explores Trump’s Heartless Budget in Cleveland City Club Address

Robert Greenstein, the President of the Washington, D.C., Center on Budget and Policy Priorities, addressed the Cleveland City Club last Friday. Greenstein’s subject was President Trump’s proposed budget and what it will mean for real people. Although Greenstein did not specifically address the federal education budget, what he said has profound and tragic implications for the future of public education as well as for health and social services. I urge you to watch the video or listen to the podcast or read Greenstein’s remarks.

President Trump’s budget, explains Greenstein, is a “topic that should be of grave concern to our nation, the state of Ohio, and the city of Cleveland… The Trump budget is different from any that I’ve seen from any President of either party in the 45 years I’ve been working on these issues… First, it is surprisingly unprofessional. President Trump has outlined a very large tax cut that he says will be one of the biggest tax cuts in U.S. history. Yet his budget makes a series of assumptions that few analysts find credible—such as assumptions of soaring economic growth year after year…. The budget also proposes to repeal the federal estate tax but then continues to count the revenue from it as though the tax would remain in place. And second, the budget proposes the most aggressive, Robin-Hood-in-Reverse, budget and tax policies that any modern President has ever proposed.”

Contrary to what we may have been reading in the paper, Greenstein worries that Congress may actually pass a budget like Trump’s proposal: “Now, you may have heard it said that the Trump budget is dead on arrival in Congress. Please don’t believe it. The Trump budget is, in large part, an exaggerated version of the budget plans that the very conservative House Republican majority has advanced every year since 2011, as well as of the last budget plan that the House and Senate jointly adopted, in 2015. Every one of those budgets would have deeply cut programs for Americans of limited means, deeply cut non-defense discretionary programs, shifted costs to states and localities, and provided substantial tax cuts for those at the top. None of those budgets made their way into law because Barack Obama was president. But now, the White House, House, and Senate are controlled by the same party, and they all have the same general idea about budget cuts and tax cuts.”

The first way Greenstein’s remarks speak to the future of our nation’s public schools is his discussion of the Robin-Hood-In-Reverse budget priorities that will take from the poor and near-poor and reward the rich through massive tax cuts. It has been well established that children’s school achievement is deeply affected by family and neighborhood poverty. Here is a reminder of that fact in a letter sent last year by the Vermont State Board of Education to then-Secretary of Education John King: “Fundamentally, if we are to close the achievement gap, it is imperative that we substantively address the underlying economic and social disparities that characterize our nation, our communities and our schools.  With two-thirds of the score variance attributable to outside of school factors, test score gaps measure the health of our society more than the quality of our schools.”  This blog has explored the effects of poverty on school achievement; see, for example, here, here, and here.

So what does Greenstein tell us about how the President’s proposed budget will affect poor families and children? The budget “proposes remarkably large tax cuts for those at the top and remarkably severe cuts in social programs for those who face hard times—cuts in one program after another for working-poor families, (and) disadvantaged children… which would push millions of Americans either into poverty or deeper into it. The budget is especially harsh on people who live paycheck to paycheck or otherwise struggle to get by…. The budget embraces the House-passed bill to ‘repeal and replace’ the Affordable Care Act, which the Congressional Budget Office estimates will cause 23 million more American to become uninsured… The budget also cuts nearly $200 billion over ten years from the food stamp program, both by cutting the program directly and by forcing states to pay about one-quarter of food stamp benefit costs…. (T)he Trump budget proposes to end the national food stamp benefit standards, which President Nixon and Congress established on a bipartisan basis after researchers in the late 1960s found rates of child malnutrition and nutrition-related diseases in parts of our country that were akin to the rates in some third-world countries. The Trump budget would turn back the clock.”

Greenstein continues: “In other areas, the budget would turn the clock back even further, to decades well before the 1960s. There’s a part of the federal budget known as non-defense-discretionary programs. This includes most of the federal spending for education, job training, scientific research, and transportation—important building blocks for a healthy economy in the future. It also includes funds for environmental protection, food safety, national parks, veterans’ health care, and a number of important programs to help low-and modest-income families, like low-income housing assistance, Head Start, and child care. This part of the budget has already been squeezed heavily in recent years. But the Trump budget would cut it so much more deeply that by 2017, total non-defense discretionary spending would be at its lowest level, as a share of the economy, since Herbert Hoover was president.”

In his remarks to the Cleveland City Club, Greenstein also addresses a second way that the new budget, if passed, will threaten public education. Again, the specific topic of public education is not a focus, but the implications are clear as Greenstein explains how the new budget, if passed, will dump the responsibility for paying for an enormous burden of previously federally funded programs onto states and localities. As readers of this blog are surely aware, the states take care of roughly half of education funding, with most of the rest paid for by local school districts. The federal government itself pays less than ten percent of K-12 education. Because education is the biggest line in many state budgets, it is among the only places (apart from or on top of massive state tax increases) where significant money could be found to pay for huge added costs for Medicaid and other added health care costs, food stamps, TANF, housing assistance and all the rest. And according to Greenstein, this federal budget bill is designed to demand that, as time passes, states must cover more and more of the costs previously paid for by the federal government.

For his Cleveland audience, Greenstein explains how shifting the cost of social and health programming would affect Ohio alone: “By the way, one-third of federal non-defense discretionary spending is for grants to state and local governments to help them deliver important services. The Trump budget cuts would hit Ohio and Cleveland hard. As just one of many examples, in 2018 alone, Ohio would lose $137 million in Community Development Block Grant funding….” “Ohio’s Medicaid expansion under the Affordable Care Act, which insures 700,000 people, would end.  On top of that, the (budget) bill cuts federal funding for Ohio’s entire Medicaid program, with the cuts growing larger with each passing year; this would place the state’s 3 million Medicaid enrollees, and Ohio’s health care providers, at risk.” The proposed shift of food stamp costs to Ohio’s budget would be $4 billion over ten years.

Just a week ago, Greenstein’s colleagues at the Center on Budget and Policy Priorities, Iris Lav and Michael Leachman, published a major report, The Trump Budget’s Massive Cuts to State and Local Services and Programs, which details what cuts to state and local governments will mean for the people who lose services unless states can find a way to compensate for federal cuts.

First there are entitlement programs (and this report calls food stamps by the acronym for its current name, Supplemental Nutritional Assistance Program. SNAP): “Entitlement (or mandatory) programs are ongoing; they continue as they are unless policymakers change them. The Trump budget would significantly change three entitlements—Medicaid, SNAP, and TANF—and eliminate a fourth, the Social Services Block Grant.”

Then there are programs that are funded each year when Congress appropriates the money for specific budget lines—the part of the budget called Non-Defense Discretionary Spending: “The total cut to discretionary grants for states and localities would amount to $28 billion in 2018 and grow to about $82 billion a year by 2027.”  Programs eliminated are Low Income Energy Assistance; HOME Investment Partnerships, Community Development Block Grant and Choice Neighborhoods; the Community Services Block Grant; and two education programs—the 21st Century Community Learning Center after-school programs, and Supporting Effective Instruction State Grants (30 percent of these funds are used for class-size reduction and the rest for teacher professional development).

Make no mistake.  Eliminating  all these programs and reducing the federal budget for a host of others will hurt vulnerable families and children. And the federal cuts, even to programs that are not directly related to public schools, will inevitably further reduce state expenditures on public education when states struggle try to rearrange the budget to help desperate people who need health and social services. Here are Lav and Leachman in last week’s report: “Some may argue that states could pay for and continue these programs, rather than have people suffer the consequences of losing assistance and opportunities. The President’s March budget blueprint (the earlier Skinny Budget) repeatedly comments that various programs should be transferred to the states, with no mention of additional resources to support the transfer. The reality, however, is that states lack the wherewithal to replace the magnitude of funds they would lose under the budget. States operate under balanced budget requirements, and most states are already struggling to balance their current budgets, even before any federal cost shifts. Recent state revenue growth has been weaker than expected, leaving 28 states with budget shortfalls this fiscal year… Most of these states have responded by cutting services, using reserves, and taking other steps to balance their budgets…. More than half the states lack the revenue needed to maintain services at existing levels in 2018.”

Robert Greenstein’s speech to the Cleveland City Club is a clear and easy way to become better informed about the outrageous heartlessness of the budget Trump and Congress are considering.  I urge you to watch the video or listen to the podcast or read Greenstein’s remarks.  Then be in touch with your U.S. Senators.

Public Schools “Flush with Cash”?

In his inaugural address, President Donald Trump declared that public schools are “flush with cash.” That phrase confirms something I’ve always suspected. President Trump has never been inside a public school.

The public schools I know generally have old fashioned waxed tile floors—work done by a custodian after the children leave at the end of the day.  The trash is emptied, and the cafeteria tables are set up for the free breakfast provided these days for hungry children who qualify. Then the tables are folded up and lined tight against the wall to allow the children to have gym class in the all-purpose room before lunch is set up. The stale aroma of fish sticks lingers through the afternoon gym classes and, if the school is in a bit wealthier community, into the band class that is also set up some days every week in the same all-purpose room.

“Flush with cash” describes the people crowding the sidewalk in front of Bergdorf’s on Fifth Avenue and the people in tailored overcoats we keep watching while they ride down the escalator in the gilded Trump Tower.  But referring to any public school as “flush with cash” is one of those falsehoods Kellyanne Conway has taken to calling “alternative facts.”

In his speech Trump trumpeted one of the classic anti-public school talking points of those who want to trash and privatize public schools—that although we are dumping tons of money into our schools, our schools haven’t moved the needle on test scores.

It’s true that overall on the one test that is trusted, the National Assessment of Education Progress (NAEP), scores have not risen astronomically. While the black-white test score gaps have narrowed, the huge gap in achievement among children whose family income is in the top ten percent and those in the bottom ten percent is now 40 percent wider than it was in 1970.  That is surely consistent with the real fact—documented in academic research—that children’s standardized test scores are affected in the aggregate by the wealth or poverty of their families and the economic conditions in their communities.

What about school spending?  Richard Rothstein studied this back in the 1990s in reports published by the Economic Policy Institute.  Here is what he explains in Where’s the Money Gone?, his report on school spending between 1967 and 1991: “(T)he share of expenditures going to regular education dropped from 80% to 59% between 1967 and 1991, while the share going to special education climbed from 4% to 17%.  Of the net new money spent on education in 1991, only 26% went to improve regular education, while about 38% went to special education for severely handicapped and learning-disabled children. Per pupil expenditures for regular education grew by only 28% during this quarter century—an average annual rate of about 1%.”

Rothstein later updated his study to cover the years from 1991-1996.  In Where’s the Money Going?, Rothstein documents that,”(R)eal per pupil spending across the nation was roughly stable over the 1991-96 period, growing by only 0.7% (or 0.14% on an average annual basis).  This was a significant slowdown from the growth in per pupil spending of 61% (0r 2.0% on an average annual basis) from 1967-1991.  In the most recent period, some districts have actually had to reduce regular per pupil education spending in response to the combined pressures of enrollment growth, inflation, and shifting priorities toward spending on special populations… The share of spending on regular education is shrinking. By the 1996 school year, regular education accounted for only 56.8% of all school spending, down from 58.5% in 1991.  Special education spending grew to 19.0% of all school spending in 1996, up from 17.8% in 1991.  School lunch and breakfast programs grew to 4.8% of total school spending in 1996, compared to 3.3% in 1991.  Bilingual education programs grew to 2.5% of total school spending in 1996, up from 1.9% in 1991. The shift of spending away from the regular education program continues a trend observed over the 1967-91 period. However, in an era of stagnant overall school spending, such as the 1990s, this shift has translated into an actual reduction in regular education spending per pupil in several school districts.”

These numbers, now 20 years old, reflect that after the Individuals with Disabilities Education Act passed in 1975, a significant percentage of school funding was used to create programs for children the schools had not previously served.  And as the number of English learners has grown, significant funding has shifted into programs to serve these students.

But what do more recent numbers tell us about trends in the funding of schools?  Last October, the Center on Budget and Policy Priorities (CBPP) updated its regular reporting on trends in state-by-state expenditures.  While federal funding for schools makes up only about 10 percent of all school finance, the states contribute over 40 percent, which means that trends in state funding significantly affect local school programming. Here is CBPP’s most recent conclusion: “Public investment in K-12 schools—crucial for communities to thrive and the U.S. economy to offer broad opportunity—has declined dramatically in a number of states over the last decade. Worse, most of the deepest-cutting states have also cut income tax rates, weakening their main revenue source for supporting schools. At least 23 states will provide less ‘general’ or ‘formula’ funding—the primary form of state support for elementary and secondary schools—in the current school year (2017) than when the Great Recession took hold in 2008… Eight states have cut general funding per student by about 10 percent or more over this period.  Five of those eight—Arizona, Kansas, North Carolina, Oklahoma, and Wisconsin—enacted income tax rate cuts costing tens or hundreds of millions of dollars each year rather than restore education funding… Thirty-five states provided less overall state funding per student in the 2014 school year (the most recent year available) than in the 2008 school year, before the recession took hold.  In 27 states, local government funding per student fell over the same period, adding to the damage of state funding cuts.”

Finally, in a recent November 2016 report, Exploring the Consequences of Charter School Expansion in U.S. Cities, Bruce Baker, the Rutgers school finance expert, warns that rapidly expanding privatization through the authorization of new charter schools is destabilizing a number of urban public school districts where the education marketplace is rapidly growing. Privatization is President Donald Trump’s proposed cure for what he believes are the financial and academic woes of our public schools.

Here is Baker’s warning: “If we consider a specific geographic space, like a major urban center, operating under the reality of finite available resources (local, state, and federal revenues), the goal is to provide the best possible system for all children citywide, given the resources available… Chartering, school choice, or market competition are not policy objectives in-and-of-themselves.  They are policy alternatives—courses of policy action—toward achieving these broader goals and must be evaluated in this light…  Of particular concern are those cases in which revenues are declining rapidly with enrollment decline, putting the squeeze on districts to reduce expenditures more rapidly than costs (potentially leading to significant annual deficits)… Of particular interest here is whether the reduction of enrollments from students transferring from district to charter schools leads to a manageable decline in total revenues, given declining enrollments of host districts.”

Baker concludes with a warning we should take seriously: “At the very least, federal and state policies intending to stimulate further charter growth must no longer be quality or integrity blind, assuming that market forces will induce necessary corrections.  The federal government in particular, in recent years, has poured significant funding into the expansion of chartering in states that have exhibited systemic failures of financial oversight coupled with weak educational outcomes.  The federal government has also through facilities financing support for charter schools, aided in the transfer of previously publicly held capital assets to private hands, as well as aided in the accumulation of privately held debt to be covered at public expense… There may come a time when policymakers and the public at large tires of the recent wave of charter expansion, becoming (even) more wary of tradeoffs that have been made.  Any significant reversal of course, reemphasis on district schools, tighter restriction on and mass closure of charter schools, is now encumbered with major logistical and financial barriers.”

In less technical terms Moody’s Investor Services has warned that charters threaten to destabilize their public school disricts—parasites destroying their hosts—particularly in big cities that were devastated by the foreclosure crisis.  for the Washington Post describes Moody’s conclusions: “While charters are everywhere — in at least 41 states — they tend to make up a bigger share of total enrollment in urban areas. And some urban districts face a downward spiral driven by population declines. It begins with people leaving the city or district. Then revenue declines, leading to program and service cuts. The cuts lead parents to seek out alternatives, and charters capture more students. As enrollment shifts to charters, public districts lose more revenue, and that can lead to more cuts. Rinse, repeat.”

Our society has historically been distinguished from many others by our aspiration to educate all of our children. Hiring real live, professionally credentialed teachers to educate 50 million children is likely to be pretty expensive.  Of course some tech entrepreneurs dream we can find a way to do it all online with scripted curriculum, and politicians like Donald Trump imagine we can find a way to save money by undermining teachers unions and ceasing to pay adequate salaries to the over 3 million teachers who now serve in our public schools.  Beware, because both of those ideas are really part of the agenda behind the lie that our public schools are “flush with cash.”

Tax Cuts Deliver Higher College Tuition, Fail to Grow the Overall Economy

I suppose you have noticed that substantive discussion of our nation’s problems has fallen by the way in this year’s election season. At best candidates are selling reform proposals without explaining exactly how such plans could be realized and precisely how they would address very real problems. Everybody seems to believe in free tuition at public colleges and universities, for example, but there are few clear answers about why college costs have skyrocketed in recent years and where the money to underwrite free tuition would come from.

Despite that historically our society has affirmed the role of public institutions paid for by taxes for ensuring essential services and protecting the good of the wider community, and despite that we have traditionally believed that the tax code should be progressive with the heaviest burden on those with the greatest financial means, an anti-tax climate now dominates our politics. Funding for essential state services—social services for the poor, public K-12 education, and in recent years state colleges and universities—has fallen by the way.  Doug Webber, an economist at Temple University, one of Pennsylvania’s public universities, explains: “It’s tempting to blame Temple’s shiny buildings and new administrators for the big increase in tuition. But there’s another, much more important reason for the rising costs.” Since 2000, “Pennsylvania’s state government (has) cut its per-student appropriations by $6,000 in inflation-adjusted dollars. The rapid increase in the cost of college in recent decades—and the associated explosion in student debt, which now totals nearly $1.3 trillion nationally—is all too familiar to many Americans. But few understand what has caused the tuition boom, particularly at the public institutions that enroll roughly two-thirds of all students at four-year colleges. Many commenters, particularly in the popular press, focus on ballooning administrative budgets and extravagant student amenities…. but by far the biggest driver of rising tuitions for public colleges has been declining state funding for higher education.”

Webber examines the facts: “At most, about a quarter of the increase in college tuition since 2000 can be attributed to rising faculty salaries, improved amenities and administrative bloat.  By comparison, the decline in state support accounts for about three-quarters of the rising cost of college… (I)f Pennsylvania restored funding for higher education to its 2000 levels, Pennsylvania’s public research institutions could reduce tuition by nearly $4,000 per year without altering their budgets.  For students, the impact could be even greater once loan fees and interest were taken into account… If funding had held steady, universities could have built new buildings, hired more administrators and tended to other priorities while still keeping tuition hikes in check. With huge budget cuts, big tuition increases were inevitable.”

Data updated in mid-August from the Center on Budget and Policy Priorities (CBPP), confirms that Webber’s analysis of public funding for state colleges and universities explains a national trend, not merely the sad reality in Pennsylvania, where the legislature has been rigidly committed to avoiding tax increases. “Of the states that have finalized their higher education budgets for the current school year, after adjusting for inflation, forty-six states—all except Montana, North Dakota, Wisconsin, and Wyoming—are spending less per student in the 2015-16 school year than they did before the recession… The average state is spending $1,598, or 18 percent, less per student than before the recession.”  While 38 states did increase per-student, higher education funding in the past year, the increases were too small to reverse the trend of diminishing state investment in institutions of higher learning.

Nine states have reduced per-student funding for their public colleges and universities by more than 30 percent since the 2008 recession began: Alabama, Arizona, Idaho, Illinois, Kentucky, Louisiana, New Hampshire, Pennsylvania, and South Carolina.

In the past year alone, Illinois cut per-student, higher education funding by $1,746, and five other states cut funding for their public colleges and universities by more than $250 per student: Alaska, Arizona, Oklahoma, West Virginia, and Wisconsin.

Unlike the federal government, states are required by law to balance their budgets every year.  When states cut income taxes or make them regressive and when they cut corporate taxes, there are less dollars for essential services like public K-12 education, and public colleges and universities. It is a matter of simple arithmetic. What is often overlooked is that along with the rising expenses for students when college tuition grows, state economies suffer as middle class workers like school teachers and counselors are laid off and as low-paid adjuncts replace tenure-track college professors.

Here is John Hanna’s most recent update for the Associated Press on the ongoing pain caused by Kansas Governor Sam Brownback’s experiment with tax cutting: “Kansas saw its tax collections fall $10 million short of expectations in August, and Republican Gov. Sam Brownback is blaming a soft economy even as his critics make his tax-cutting policies a key issue in the year’s elections. The state Department of Revenue’s report (at the end of August 2016)… marked the fourth consecutive month that Kansas has failed to hit its revenue projections, and tax collections have fallen short 10 of the past 12 months… Kansas repeatedly has missed monthly revenue targets and struggled to balance its budget since GOP legislators heeded Brownback’s call to slash personal income taxes in 2012 and 2013 as an economic stimulus.”

Politicians like to promise that tax cuts for the wealthy and for corporations will grow the economy—that prosperity will trickle down to the rest of us.  Paul Krugman, the Nobel Prize-winning economist, rejects such supply-side economics: “True, you can find self-proclaimed economic experts claiming to find overall evidence that low tax rates spur economic growth, but such experts invariably turn out to be on the payroll of right-wing pressure groups (and have an interesting habit of getting their numbers wrong). Independent studies of the correlation between tax rates and economic growth, for example by the Congressional Research Service, consistently find no relationship at all. There is no serious economic case for the tax-cut obsession.”

Economy Grows But State Funding for Public Schools Continues to Shrink

Here is what Wikipedia says about Grover Norquist:  “Grover Glenn Norquist…  is an American political advocate who is founder and president of Americans for Tax Reform, an organization that opposes all tax increases…. A Republican, he is the primary promoter of the “Taxpayer Protection Pledge,” a pledge signed by lawmakers who agree to oppose increases in marginal income tax rates for individuals and businesses, as well as net reductions or eliminations of deductions and credits without a matching reduced tax rate. Prior to the November 2012 election, the pledge was signed by 95% of all Republican members of Congress and all but one of the candidates running for the 2012 Republican presidential nomination… Norquist’s national strategy has included recruiting state and local politicians to support ATR’s stance on taxes.”

How has Norquist described the goal of his campaign against taxes? “My goal is to cut government in half in twenty-five years, to get it down to the size where we can drown it in the bathtub.”

You might imagine that Norquist is a kind of nut case, but lots of people have signed his pledge. In Ohio, my super-majority Republican state, for years and years our legislative leaders have been signing Norquist’s pledge and cutting taxes. Last week, the Plain Dealer described the plight of municipalities in Ohio caused by a rash of state tax cuts that have diminished funds the state has in the past allocated for essential servicesAlthough the economy has begun to spring back from the 2008 recession, Cleveland’s Mayor Frank Jackson is reported to have explained that Cleveland, “just cannot compete with a series of policies at the state level that, he says, rob local governments….  The Local Government Fund was created in 1935, as a promise to Ohioans that their support of the state’s first sales tax would mean that 40 percent of collections would come back to local governments and schools… In 2011, however, Gov. John Kasich, faced with an $8 billion shortfall, proposed a state budget that cut 25 percent of local government funding the following year and 50 percent in 2013…. By 2015, Cleveland’s annual share  of the Local Government Fund had been whittled to $26.5 million—a net loss of $29.5 million (annually) from pre-recession levels.” In 2005, former Governor Bob Taft and the legislature eliminated a tangible personal property tax on income and equipment that had helped fund municipal governments and school districts. They replaced it with a Commercial Activities Tax, which was then slashed by Governor Kasich and the legislature in 2011.  “Also built into Kasich’s 2011 budget bill was the controversial abolition of the estate tax.”  And finally at the end of 2014, Governor Kasich and the legislature passed a law to standardize and streamline Ohio’s income tax, a plan that will take effect in 2016 and further reduce state funding for municipalities and school districts (separate taxing jurisdictions in the state of Ohio).

It is axiomatic in public finance: if the federal government cuts taxes and the state government cuts taxes, the only way to maintain essential services is to go is back to citizens to increase local taxes—which is exactly what is happening here in my community. Across Ohio, according to the dogma of Grover Norquist which our legislature has embedded in state law, we cannot have “unvoted tax increases,” and so, in November my inner-ring suburban city government asked voters to increase the income tax.  In 2016 the school district will be asking voters to increase the millage. Because of all the tax cuts from the state, these new local taxes will (we hope) maintain current services.  In my community we are working hard to stay in place—just to keep from laying off garbage collectors and police and fire at the municipal level and to keep from increasing class size to alarming levels by laying off the teachers in our schools.  In these times when computers and the internet are making it possible to cut costs across some sectors, we are told we must economize in government too, but to collect garbage and put out fires and teach our children, we need to pay real people.  Roughly eighty percent of school budgets are spent on personnel.  If we cut taxes, we lose the people we depend on. (Increasing local taxes is inherently disequalizing, as some communities cannot afford to raise local taxes, but that is a topic for another day.)

In this context, it is significant that in December the Center on Budget and Policy Priorities (CBPP) updated a report it has been releasing  for several years, a report comparing overall funding for public education to what states were spending on public schools before the Great Recession in 2008: Most States Have Cut School Funding, and Some Continue Cutting.  Here is how the authors summarize their findings: “Most states provide less support per student for elementary and secondary schools—in some cases, much less—than before the Great Recession, our survey of state budget documents over the last three months finds.  Worse, some states are still cutting eight years after the recession took hold.  Our country’s future depends crucially on the quality of its schools, yet rather then raising K-12 funding to support proven reforms such as hiring and retaining excellent teachers, reducing class sizes, and expanding access to high quality early education, many states have headed in the opposite direction.  These cuts weaken schools’ capacity to develop the intelligence and creativity of the next generation….”

The report simply and clearly explains the trends in public funding for schools nationally and across the states.  The federal government provides about 9 percent of funding for public schools; states average 46 percent; and local taxes cover about 45 percent.  But the federal government and the states have been reducing their portions.  Congress reduced Title I compensation for schools serving children living in poverty by 11 percent between 2010 and 2015 and cut funding for the Individuals with Disabilities Education Act by 9 percent.  It is at the state level—the primary funder of public schools—where the most devastating spending reductions have occurred.  “At least 31 states provided less state funding per student in the 2014 school year (that is, the school year ending in 2014) than in the 2008 school year…. In at least 15 states, the cuts exceeded 10 percent… While data on total school funding in the current school year (2016) is not yet available, at least 25 states are still providing less ‘general’ or ‘formula’ funding—the primary form of state funding for schools—per student than in 2008.  In seven states, the cuts exceed 10 percent.  Most states raised ‘general’ funding per student slightly this year, but 12 states imposed new cuts, even as the national economy continues to improve.”

Which states reduced per-pupil funding for public schools by more than 10 percent?  Arizona, – 23.3%; Alabama, -21.4%; Idaho, -16.9%; Georgia, -16.5%; Mississippi, -15.4%; Oklahoma, -15.3%; South Dakota, -14.2%; Wisconsin, -14.2%; North Carolina, -13.9%; Kentucky, -12.1%; Virginia, -11.2%; Texas, -11%; New Mexico, -10.7%; South Carolina, -10.4%; and Kansas, -10.3%.

Local school districts have been unable to compensate: “In at least 18 states, local government funding per student fell over the same period.  In at least 27 states, local funding rose, but those increases rarely made up for cuts in state support.  Total local funding nationally—for the states where comparable data exist—declined between 2008 and 2014, adding to the damage from state funding cuts.” “Because schools rely so heavily on state aid, cuts to state funding (especially formula funding) generally force local school districts to scale back educational services, raise more revenue to cover the gap, or both.  When the Great Recession hit, however, property values fall sharply, making it hard for school districts to raise local property taxes —schools’ primary local funding source—without raising rates, which is politically challenging even in good times.  Raising rates was particularly difficult in the midst of a severe recession with steep declines in housing values in many areas.”

In mid-December, Jeff Bryant, writing for the Education Opportunity Network, summarized the implications of CBPP’s new report in a fine piece, The Important Education Issue Leaders Are Still Ignoring: “One of the more telling combinations of news stories from the past week found education policy insiders in Washington, DC rejoicing over the passage of a new law rewriting federal education policy while at the same time a new report revealed how political leadership is continuing to fail America’s public schools… (D)espite all the celebration surrounding the Every Student Succeeds Act, the issue that remains mostly unaddressed in education policy is the massive under-funding that most states continue to inflict on public schools… Importantly, as the CBPP commentary states, ‘money matters for educational outcomes,’ especially for low-income children, whose best interest, many have said, is the main intention of federal education policy.”

As you contemplate the new year, I encourage you to read both the Center on Budget and Policy Priorities’ accessible report and Jeff Bryant’s fine piece about its significance.