Taxes are merely a tool by which governments can fund the services needed in a good society. Today instead, as the Freedom Caucus dominates the House of Representatives and Donald Trump sets sets the agenda, taxes and government are seen as the enemy—something to eliminate. Grover Norquist, who leads Americans for Tax Reform and who has convinced a mass of state legislators to sign his pledge never to raise taxes, is famous for his declaration: “I don’t want to abolish government. I simply want to reduce it to the size where I can drag it into the bathroom and drown it in the bathtub.” In the eyes of many of today’s politicians, tax policy has become not a tool of government but a goal in itself along with the goal of reducing the programs and services the government provides.
Some of the services tax cutters want to eliminate are provided by public schools. Even before President Donald Trump announced his budget outline last week, federal funding for schools had declined because many in Congress have prioritized tax cutting. In October 2016, the Center on Budget and Policy Priorities reported that the two largest funding streams for K-12 public schools have been growing smaller. Funding for Title I, the program for schools serving concentrations of children in poverty dropped 8.3 percent (adjusted for inflation) between 2010 and 2016 and funding to support federally mandated programs for special education dropped 6.4 percent (again adjusted for inflation).
If tax reduction were merely a federal malaise, it would not be so serious for schools, for federal funds pay for merely 10 percent of school funding, with the bulk of the money roughly split between states and local school districts. But because schools make up one of the the biggest budget lines in every state, tax slashing by the state legislative endorsers of Norquist’s pledge is definitely affecting public schools. That is why we are seeing more and more reports like this one about school districts in rural and small towns instituting four-day school weeks. When states cut the budget and federal programs are also reduced, local school districts can either raise millage or cut programs.
School funding problems continue on display during this state budget season. In New York, the Alliance for Quality Education (AQE) released a white paper documenting that again this year Governor Andrew Cuomo’s budget fails to fulfill the state’s commitment under the 2007 Campaign for Fiscal Equity (CFE) decision to fund schools adequately under the standards of New York’s constitution. AQE condemns Cuomo’s recent budget proposal: “The 2017-18 Executive Budget repeals and does not replace the Foundation Aid formula, and would return New York State to the pre-CFE era when political machinations and arbitrary formulas guided the distribution of school aid—without regard for student need.” In a new lawsuit, parents in three New York school districts have also just demanded that an appeals court release funds that had already been allocated to their school districts but that have been frozen by another court: “On December 28, 2016, Judge Kimberly O’Connor in Albany found that the budget director exceeded his legal authority in withholding the grants and ordered the funds be immediately released… for distribution to support vital programs at the schools.” But, “Governor Cuomo decided to appeal Judge O’Connor’s ruling last month. Under New York law, the appeal triggers an automatic stay of the order to release the funds.” The school districts list the services they cannot afford to provide without the funds: social work and counseling, family outreach, academic interventions, professional development, and extended learning time.”
And in Illinois—where weeks ago Governor Bruce Rauner vetoed a bill to send $215 million that had already been promised by the state to help the Chicago Public Schools avert bankruptcy—Rauner has finally agreed to release the funds, but only if legislators will redo the state’s pension system. Rauner is holding Chicago’s children and teachers hostage. A reporter for Chicago’s DNA Info describes Illinois Senate President John Cullerton’s response to Rauner’s pension reform ransom demand: “The legislation would require public sector employees to give up ‘pension benefits in return for a one-time fix for CPS and no guarantee the state will offer the same assistance next year or any other year.” While there is politics involved in all this wrangling, experts document that Illinois imposes a structurally flawed funding system on Chicago and other poor school districts. The Education Law Center has identified Illinois school funding as among the nation’s most inequitable and has identified Chicago as chronically among “the most fiscally disadvantaged large urban districts in the nation.”
Kansas is the state where relief suddenly seems possible. Ironically Donald Trump himself may intervene (sort of) in the school funding crisis. It has been reported that Trump may be appointing Governor Sam Brownback to a post with the U.S. Mission to the United Nations in Rome, where Brownback would coordinate the work of agencies involved in food and agriculture. Yesterday the NY Times editorialized: “Kansas can only hope that reports are true that the Trump administration will let… (Kansas’s) governor, Sam Brownback, escape the disaster he created in Topeka….” The editorial continues: “Mr. Brownback, a Republican first elected on the Tea Party crest of 2010, used his office as a laboratory for conservative budget experimentation. His insistence that tax cuts create, not diminish, revenues has left the state facing a ballooning deficit plus a ruling by the state Supreme Court that Kansas schoolchildren have been unconstitutionally shortchanged in state aid for years, with the poorest minority children most deprived. The court ruled this month that they would shut the state’s schools if funding wasn’t made equitable by June 30.” The NY Times describes Kansas families as “experiencing the deepening budget crisis firsthand in shortened school hours and resources as the state suffered two credit downgrades. Public protest led to a number of Brownback loyalists voted out last year, with legislative newcomers igniting a budget revolt against the governor.”
We can only hope for Brownback’s departure through the confirmation of the Trump appointment to Rome. But there is some question about what would happen then. It is to be hoped that if he becomes governor, Lt. Gov. Jeff Colyer, also a fiscal conservative, will not veto—as Brownback last month vetoed a bill passed by the legislature to increase taxes by $1 billion over two years—the necessary revenue to support the state’s schools.
In Final Test, a book written long before our country faced today’s army of tax slashers—President Trump, Vice President Mike Pence, Education Secretary Betsy DeVos, Congressional Budget Office Director Mick Mulvaney and the members of the House Freedom Caucus—Peter Schrag, the retired editorial director of the Sacramento Bee, ruminated about the decades-long California school funding crisis following the passage of Proposition 13 and the role of the courts in trying to rectify legislative failures to fund schools. In chapters on school finance court battles in California, New Jersey, Ohio, Alabama, North Carolina, Maryland, and New York, Schrag ponders a question that is more timely today than it was when his book was published in 2003: “Court decisions—particularly those that seem to require states to provide ever-richer resources to under-performing children—will almost certainly run into increasing political resistance, on both financial and equity grounds. To what extent are middle-income and affluent voters, the people who come to the polls, willing to send their local and state tax dollars to support extra resources for other people’s children, especially if they’re poor, black, or Latino?” (p.238)
Of course, that is what the social contract is all about. School finance is not so much a fiscal as a moral issue.