New School Finance Report Confirms Funding Shortages Striking Teachers Have Been Showing Us

For nearly two decades the preferred spin of policymakers at federal and state levels has been that financial investments (inputs) are far less important than evidence of academic achievement (outcomes as measured by standardized tests). And the outcomes were supposed to be achieved by pressuring teachers to work harder and smarter. Somehow teachers have been expected to deliver a miracle at the same time classes got bigger; nurses, counselors and librarians were cut; and teacher turnover increased as salaries lagged.

Statements of justice in public education have always been a little vague about the most direct path to get there.  One of my favorite definitions of public education’s purpose is from Benjamin Barber’s 1992 book, An Aristocracy of Everyone: “(T)he object of public schools is not to credential the educated but to educate the uncredentialed; that is, to change and transform pupils, not merely to exploit their strengths. The challenge in a democracy is to transform every child into an apt pupil, and give every pupil the chance to become an autonomous, thinking person and a deliberative, self-governing citizen: that is to say, to achieve excellence… Education need not begin with equally adept students, because education is itself the equalizer. Equality is achieved not by handicapping the swiftest, but by assuring the less advantaged a comparable opportunity. ‘Comparable’ here does not mean identical… Schooling is what allows math washouts to appreciate the contributions of math whizzes—and may one day help persuade them to allocate tax revenues for basic scientific research, which math illiterates would reject. Schooling allows those born poor to compete with those born rich; allows immigrants to feel as American as the self-proclaimed daughters and sons of the American Revolution; allows African-Americans, whose ancestors were brought here in bondage, to fight for the substance (rather than just the legal forms) of their freedom.”  (An Aristocracy of Everyone, pp. 12-13)

There are many reasons to consider Barber’s principles carefully in Trump’s America. In the specific case of the provision of education, however, we ought to consider this question: Can these words—“Education need not begin with equally adept students, because education is itself the equalizer”— be achieved without our society’s investing in tangible inputs like class size and numbers of counselors and the presence of school music programs?  For a year now—in walkouts and strikes—schoolteachers have been telling us that policymakers are naive to believe inputs don’t matter.  In a new report, K-12 School Funding Up in Most 2018 Teacher-Protest States, But Still Well Below Decade Ago, the Center on Budget and Priorities (CBPP) confirms teachers’ outrage about the collapse of financial investment in their schools.

CBPP’s new report summarizes school funding in several of the states where striking teachers have called attention to their states’ long collapse of funding for K-12 public education: “Protests by teachers and others last year helped lead to substantial increases in school funding in Arizona, North Carolina, Oklahoma, and West Virginia, four of the 12 states that had cut school ‘formula’ funding—the primary state revenue source for schools—most deeply over the last decade. Despite last year’s improvements, however, formula funding remains well below 2008 levels in these states.”

CBPP explains further that to end teachers’ strikes, legislators too frequently went for a quick fix instead of a stable solution: “Three of the four teacher-protest states that increased formula funding last year used revenue sources that may prove unsustainable…. Arizona teachers ended their strike after Governor Doug Ducey signed a budget giving them a 20 percent salary increase over three years.  But the budget doesn’t include the new revenue required to finance the planned spending…. North Carolina’s legislature increased funding for schools without raising new revenue to do so, even though the state faces a revenue shortfall next year for covering ongoing needs, primarily due to unsustainable income tax cuts that began to take effect in 2014… Oklahoma funded pay increases for teachers and other public employees that included a hike in cigarette taxes, a boost in gasoline taxes, and an increase in the tax rate on oil extraction.  While these revenue sources were adequate to cover the pay hikes, they may not be in the future.”

Even the emergency increases after teachers’ strikes are not enough: “Most of the teacher-protest states had cut their formula funding so deeply over the last decade that even last year’s sizeable funding boosts weren’t enough to restore funding to pre-recession levels.  For example, in Oklahoma, per-student formula funding remains 15 percent below 2008 levels, including inflation adjustments.  And per-student formula funding in Arizona, North Carolina, and West Virginia, as well, is still well below pre-recession levels.”

In twelve states, inflation-adjusted, per-pupil formula funding remains below the 2008 level—down by 20 percent in Texas, 15 percent in Oklahoma,15 percent in Alabama, 13 percent in Kentucky, 12 percent in Kansas, 9 percent in Michigan, 8 percent in West Virginia, 8 percent in Utah, 7 percent in North Carolina, 6 percent in Arizona, 3 percent in Mississippi, and 3 percent in Idaho.

Why does per-pupil formula funding matter so much?  “K-12 schools in every state rely heavily on state aid. On average, 47 percent of school revenues in the United States come from state funds. Local governments provide another 45 percent; the remaining 8 percent comes from the federal government… Most states target at least some funds to districts with greater student need (e.g., more students from low-income families) and less ability to raise funds from property taxes and other local revenues. These features make state formula funding an especially important source of funding for schools in high-poverty areas, which disproportionately educate children of color.  That said, this targeting often doesn’t fully equalize educational spending across wealthy and poor school districts… Because schools rely so heavily on state aid, cuts to state funding… generally force local school districts to scale back educational services, raise more revenue to cover the gap, or both.”

Statewide aggregate data shows that local school districts have to some extent been able to cushion the effect of reduced state funds: “In 2016, for the first time since the recession hit, a majority of states (26 states) provided higher levels of total state and local funding per student than they did before the recession took hold.” “While combined state and local funding in 2016 was nearly back to pre-recession levels nationally, state funding was down $167 per student while local funding was up $161.  Local funding increases help school districts absorb deep cuts in state funds, but a shift toward local funding raises equity concerns.  Because school districts in neighborhoods with high property values find it much easier to raise adequate revenue than districts where property values are low, a shift toward more local funding can exacerbate school funding inequities.”  Besides worrying about inequity, it is important to note that in 24 states—nearly half—the level of combined state and local school funding in 2016 remains below pre-recession funding when adjusted for inflation.

We have watched and listened all year to a state-by-state cry for help from a profession of hard-working, dedicated public servants disgusted with despicable working conditions, lack of desperately needed services for their students, and falling salaries.  CBPP concludes its report with a table displaying falling pay between the 2009-10 and 2016-17 school years.  Teachers’ salaries rose in only 8 states and the District of Columbia.  In 42 states salaries, adjusted for inflation, dropped. The collapse in salaries is shocking particularly in the states where salaries have fallen farthest—by 16 percent in Mississippi, 15.6 percent in Colorado, 15.3 percent in Oklahoma, 11.4 percent in Illinois, 11.2 percent in West Virginia,  9.8 percent in Arizona, 9.7 percent in Indiana, 9 percent in Ohio, 8.8 percent in Washington, and 8.8 percent in Virginia.

Talking about education in stark terms like inputs vs. outcomes seems cold. This year striking school teachers have helped us visualize what it means. The Center on Budget and Policy Priorities confirms with solid data what the teachers have been showing us.