AFT Sums Up Ten Years of Public School Underfunding and Neglect with Details from Each State

The new report from the American Federation of Teachers (AFT), A Decade of Neglect, is one of the most lucid explanations I’ve read about the deplorable fiscal conditions for public schools across the states.  It explains the precipitous drop in school funding caused by the Great Recession, temporarily ameliorated in 2009 by an infusion of funds from the federal stimulus (a financial boost that disappeared after a couple of years), compounded by tax cutting and austerity budgeting across many states, and further compounded by schemes to drain education dollars to privatized charter and voucher programs all out of the same budget.

The report delineates the conditions tangled together over the decade: “While some states are better off than most, in states where spending on education was less in 2016 than it was before the recession, our public schools remain nearly $19 billion short of the annual funding they received in 2008, after adjusting for changes in the consumer price index… The recession ran from December 2007 through June 2009 and prompted a crisis setting off a chain of actions that resulted in significant budget cutting by our state governments. When the recession hit, it devastated state budgets. Job losses, lower wages, the crash in housing prices and the panic in the financial markets all worked to lower state tax revenues, while the demand for government services in the form of unemployment benefits, the Supplemental Nutrition Assistance Program, and housing and Medicaid assistance drove up expenditures.  The Brookings Institution estimated that by the second quarter of 2009, income tax collections were 27 percent below their prior-year levels, and total state taxes were 17 percent lower… The Organization for Economic Cooperation and Development’s annual report of education indicators recently found that U.S. spending on elementary and high school education declined more than 4 percent from 2010-2014…. Over this same period, education spending on average, rose 5 percent per student across the 35 countries in the OECD.”

Many states also adopted an ideology promising that tax cuts would bring the economy back. Sam Brownback’s Kansas experiment in supply side economics, however, exemplifies the failure to confirm these hopes. In Kansas the economy didn’t improve and state revenues collapsed.  Only in the past two years has the legislature there raised taxes—beginning an effort to undo the damage.  Overall, according to AFT’s report: “In 2016, 25 states were still providing less funding for K-12 schools than before the recession, after adjusting for inflation… Eighteen of the 25 states that provided less funding for k-12 education reduced their tax effort between 2008 and 2015.”  The eight states that cut taxes most deeply were: Alabama, Arizona, Florida, Georgia, Idaho, Kansas, Oklahoma, and Virginia.  And, “In 38 states, the average teacher salary in 2018 is lower than it was in 2009 in real terms… According to the Economic Policy Institute, teacher pay fell by $30 per week from 1996-2015, while pay for other college graduates increased by $124. The gap between teachers and other college graduates has continued to widen and deep cuts in school funding leave states unable to invest in their state’s teacher workforce… In 35 states, between 2008 and 2016, the ratio of students to teachers grew.”

Here is an example of the result: “(W)hile some states are doing better than others, no state is really doing well enough.  California is a leader on many of the measures used in this report.  But there are less than one tenth the number of school librarians as is recommended.  Most school districts don’t have a nurse and there are only about a quarter of the recommended number of school counselors.”

One result is growing inequity: “Our system is upside down. The Education Trust finds that districts with the highest poverty are able to spend $1,000 less per pupil than the districts that are the wealthiest.. (T)he school districts ‘serving the largest populations of Black, Latino, or American Indian students receive roughly $1,800, or 13 percent, less per student in state and local funding than those serving the fewest students of color.’  Research from the Education Law Center and Rutgers University similarly finds that there are only 20 states which, on average, devote more resources to high poverty districts than districts without poverty. Only seven states provide ten percent or more.”

Schemes to add marketplace school choice, at public expense, financially burden the public school districts where choice is expanded: “(W)hen money leaves a public school because a student has enrolled in a different system, it is difficult for that school to cut services without affecting the programs for students who remain… Second, (charter and voucher) schools can react to incentives in the marketplace and the school finance system by configuring their programs to encourage or discourage certain enrollment.  To the extent that the traditional public school system is expected to accept all children, districts disproportionately bear the costs of these shifts.  For example, we know that charter schools tend to enroll fewer high-cost special education students than traditional public schools… Moody’s Investors Service, the bond rating agency, found that not only do charter schools tend to proliferate in areas where school districts already are under economic and demographic stress, but that charter schools tend to ‘pull students and revenues away from districts faster than the districts can reduce their costs.'”

The new report is extensive and organized to make it readily searchable, state by state.  It also explores states’ diminishing investment in their colleges and universities.

What the report cannot answer is why our society has permitted such a significant drop in our financial commitment to educating our children. Have we lost track of the importance of education funding overall as revenue has dropped across the states and as other services, also suffering from lack of funding—health care, social services and housing support programs—compete for scarce funding? As the students attending public schools are increasingly poor, Black, and Hispanic, and as the wealthy have increasingly isolated themselves in exclusive enclaves which can fund their schools with ample local tax dollars, have we stopped caring as much about our responsibility to the millions of children and adolescents enrolled in the public schools of poorer communities?  The report paints a worrisome financial picture.  What it suggests about our values and perhaps our diminishing sense of public obligation is deeply troubling.

Advertisements

Teachers’ Walkouts Define the Danger of the Corporate Agenda to Destroy Public Education

In his fine book, The One Percent Solution, political economist Gordon Lafer explains how powerful, moneyed interests have quietly taken advantage of the relatively invisible politics of state government to undermine public education.  Public school governance and funding is established in the state constitutions, and corporate interests, for decades, have been strategically manipulating state politics to starve the public schools our children attend and drive their own priorities: slashing government and growing privatization.

Why the states? “(M)any of the factors that strengthen corporate political influence are magnified in the states. First, far fewer people pay attention to state government, implying wider latitude for well-funded organized interests… If most people can’t name their legislators, how many are likely to have a well informed opinion on whether prevailing wages should be required on public construction projects worth more than $25,000?…  Apart from labor unions and a handful of progressive activists, the corporate agenda… encounters little public resistance at the state level because hardly anyone knows about or understands the issues.” (The One Percent Solution, p. 34)

Lafer documents that state policy to starve public schools has been driven by groups like Koch-funded Americans for Prosperity, the American Legislative Exchange Council (ALEC), and a wide network of far-right state and regional think-tanks associated with ALEC.  In an epigraph introducing his chapter on the destruction of public schooling, Lafer chooses a quote from Joseph Bast, president of the Heartland Institute, a midwestern ALEC partner. Unlike Education Secretary Betsy DeVos, who frames the far-right agenda for school privatization innocently as the mere expansion of choices for parents, Bast is more honest: “Elementary and secondary schooling in the U.S. is the country’s last remaining socialist enterprise… The way to privatize schooling is to give parents… vouchers, with which to pay tuition at the K-12 schools of their choice… Pilot voucher programs for the urban poor will lead the way to statewide universal voucher plans. Soon, most government schools will be converted into private schools or simply close their doors. Eventually, middle- and upper-income families will no longer expect or need tax-financed assistance to pay for the education of their children, leading to further steps toward complete privatization… This is a battle we should win… But in the short term, there will be many defeats caused by teacher union opposition.” (The One Percent Solution, p. 127)

Lafer defines the corporate education platform plank by plank. Here are the subheadings of the sections of his chapter on the destruction of public education: “Budget Cuts and Crowded Classrooms,” “Vouchers,” “High-Stakes Testing,” “Charter Schools,” “Education Reform: An Evidence-Free Zone of Public Policy,” “Education Technology and the Replacement of In-Person with Digital Instruction,” and “Deprofessionalization—The Deskilling of Teachers.”  The most amazing thing about the reform agenda incorporating these mechanisms is that it has been enacted into law while we haven’t been paying attention to what’s happening in the legislature and while we’ve been too ignorant to block ALEC’s model bills. In many places it has been enacted by legislators elected in the money-driven Red wave in 2010, an election that created legislative, far-right supermajorities across many statehouses.

Lafer explains: “Political science traditionally views policy initiatives as emerging from either reasoned evaluation of what has worked to address a given social problem, or a strategic response to public opinion. But the corporate agenda for education reform is neither. Its initiatives are not the product of education scholars and often they have little or no evidentiary basis to support them. They are also often broadly unpopular. For example, a majority of the country opposes using tax dollars to pay for students to attend private schools… What parents want most of all are smaller class sizes… In this sense, education policy also provides an instructive window into the ability of corporate lobbies to move an extremely broad and ambitious agenda that is supported neither by social scientific evidence nor by the popular will.” (The One Percent Solution, p 130)

The widespread walkouts by schoolteachers this spring—from West Virginia to Oklahoma to Kentucky to Arizona to Colorado, and last week in North Carolina—have finally begun to help the public connect the dots.  We can now identify the same symptoms of the crisis in state after state: lower teachers’ salaries, larger classes, teacher shortages, more charters, more vouchers, school funding that has fallen over the decade. In a fine analysis of last week’s huge May 16th demonstration by teachers in North Carolina, the NY TimesDana Goldstein describes the very same set of problems striking teachers have been identifying all spring: “In North Carolina, inflation-adjusted salaries are down 9 percent since 2009.  Teachers earned an average of $9,000 less than the national average of $59,000 during the 2016-17 school year…. North Carolina is also the top user of foreign teachers brought in via the J-1 temporary visa, a trend that has accelerated because of stagnant pay. After Republicans took control of state government in 2013, North Carolina ended the estate tax and lowered corporate taxes as well as some personal income taxes… Since 2009, the budgets for supplies, textbooks and school technology have been slashed by about half… And a greater share of teacher compensation has been dedicated toward pensions and health care costs.” While Governor Roy Cooper, a recently elected Democrat has proposed ending some already-planned future tax cuts “for businesses and high earners,” Republicans in the North Carolina legislature make up a veto-proof supermajority.

Looking back at the effect of this spring’s walkouts by teachers—events that have awakened awareness and concern about the widespread financial crisis for public schools—Goldstein warns, however, that it will be extremely challenging to sustain the walkouts and demonstrations. Why? Because while the same destructive policies are in place across many states, the particular ways schools are funded and teachers’ salaries are set are very different from state to state: “Despite the diversity and seemingly endless energy, the movement has limits. Most states have schools that are funded more or less equally from state and local coffers, with voters making many decisions close to home. But North Carolina shares something with other walkout states: Its state government plays an unusually strong role in funding education and setting its priorities, often superseding the influence of school districts. This strong-state model can include a larger-than-typical role for state governments in funding schools, a state-mandated salary schedule for teachers or efforts to equalize funding between poor and rich school districts. Because of such policies, the states are, in a way, ripe for large-scale labor actions, despite having weak public sector unions. Unlike some Northeast states where teachers in one town can earn $20,000 more than those in a nearby city, low-income and middle-class districts in the states that have had walkouts have similar teacher salary and school funding challenges, building solidarity—and political leverage—across hundreds of miles.”

The challenge for all of us will be to pay attention to what’s happening in our statehouses. Then we must continue exposing—whatever the differences in the operation of education policy across the 50 states—the realities the corporate agenda has infused through ALEC model laws introduced across state legislatures. These are the laws that cut taxes, expand charters, redirect tax dollars to private schools through vouchers.  And we’ll need to identify the far-right money and political power in our statehouses blocking the equitable distribution of dollars to the school districts most in need. We owe thanks to the desperate schoolteachers whose walkouts this spring have jump-started this work.

Gordon Lafer’s policy prescription for improving school achievement is quite plain and very different from the corporate agenda. It is evidence based, and it ought to be obvious to anyone who has seriously considered a map of the geographic distribution of our nation’s struggling schools: “The single most important step policy makers could take to improve the education of disadvantaged students would be to make it easier for their parents to earn a living wage—or to ensure a sufficiently strong safety net to enable jobless families to live decently. Instead, many of the same corporate organizations advancing education reform also support economic policies that make it more difficult for families to pull themselves out of poverty… The corporate lobbies’ proposals to replace public schools with privately run charters are presented as a needed response…. Yet by supporting reduced school funding and opposing economic policies that make it easier for families to work their way out of poverty, these organizations are helping create the conditions most likely to ensure failure.”  (The One Percent Solution, pp. 154-155)