Can Momentum Be Sustained from the Spring’s Prophetic Walkouts by Teachers?

If you think about it differently, it is possible to turn Kurt Weill’s song into a story about school finance instead of love: “It’s a long, long while from May to December November, and the days grow short when you reach September.”

That is the lesson I learned 25 years ago when a friend and I co-chaired our local, November school levy campaign. Ohio law prohibits unvoted tax increases, prevents school districts from benefiting from property appreciation by capping the value of local levies at their dollar amount on the day they are passed, and therefore requires voters to come back on the ballot again and again—through failure after failure—until another levy finally passes. That is the only way for Ohio school districts to raise enough revenue to keep up with inflation.  In May of 1993, our local school levy had failed by 2,000 votes. My friend and I worked all summer and, beginning in September with even more intensity—16 hour days,  pulling out all the stops—to try to ensure success in November.

That November, on the third try, the levy passed by 4,000 votes. My friend and I both consider that levy campaign to be one of our primary lifetime accomplishments. We talk on the phone about it around election day every November. It was harder and more exhausting than any of our paid jobs. What we learned is that public opinion can be turned between May and November, but it happens neither easily nor naturally. It is a matter of changing the narrative frame and bringing massive peer pressure to bear—mobilizing people through thousands of personal phone calls, holding meetings everywhere, and working with others to organize nearly a thousand volunteers walking door to door. We even did our best to use social media in that pre-facebook era. A mass of parents recorded this message on their telephone answering machines: “I’m sorry. We can’t come to the phone right now because we’re so busy working on the school levy.”

My experience in 1993 makes me worry about the staying power of what we learned in this spring of 2018 from desperate and prophetic school teachers in West Virginia, Oklahoma, Kentucky, Arizona, Colorado, and North Carolina, teachers who told us that our selfish society has forgotten the needs of our children. Tax dollars in those states are so meager that underpaid teachers are leaving for other states, schools are in session only four days in some places, and classes are packed with 40 children, some of them sitting on the floor or on classroom counter tops.

The wildcat walkouts by teachers ended with the conclusion of this school year, and I worry that the message may fade from now to November. Why? Today, roughly 70 percent of households do not have children in school, and the power of corporate money in politics has affected no other institution more than public education.  In his important 2017 book, The One Percent Solution, political economist Gordon Lafer explains why attacking public education is a high priority for wealthy plutocrats: “At first glance, it may seem odd that corporate lobbies such as the Chamber of Commerce… or Americans for Prosperity would care to get involved in an issue as far removed from commercial activity as school reform. In fact, they have each made this a top legislative priority… The campaign to transform public education brings together multiple strands of (their) agenda. The teachers’ union is the single biggest labor organization in most states—thus for both anti-union ideologues and Republican strategists, undermining teachers’ unions is of central importance. Education is one of the largest components of public budgets, and in many communities the school system is the single largest employer—thus the goals of cutting budgets, enabling new tax cuts for the wealthy, shrinking the government, and lowering wage and benefit standards in the public sector all naturally coalesce around the school system. Furthermore, there is an enormous amount of money to be made from the privatization of education—so much so that every major investment bank has established special funds devoted exclusively to this sector. There are always firms that aim to profit from the privatization of public services, but the sums involved in K-12 education are an order of magnitude larger than any other service, and have generated an intensity of corporate legislative engagement unmatched by any other branch of government.” (The One Percent Solution, pp. 128-129)

Let’s begin with some signs of hope that, just perhaps, the teachers’ walkouts will have some staying power:

  • Two ballot initiatives supporting public education may appear in November on the ballot in Arizona. You may remember that Arizona has cut total state per-pupil funding by 37 percent since 2008, more than any other state; spending cuts have diminished teachers’ salaries, left buildings crumbling, and even eliminated free full-day kindergarten in some districts. Adding to these problems, the legislature has rapidly moved education dollars into privatized charters and into an education savings account vouchers program that gives away state dollars in little debit cards which parents who pull their kids out of public schools can use to pay for private services.  One ballot initiative will definitely appear in November to stop the expansion of the state’s education savings account vouchers. But teachers, motivated by their spring walkout, are mounting a second effort, a mobilization to qualify another referendum for the November ballot—a tax increase on the wealthy to pay for teachers’ salaries and public school expenses. Associated Press reporter Melissa Daniels explains: “The Invest in Education Act would increase income taxes for those who earn more than $250,000 a year. Sixty percent of the money raised would go toward teacher pay, with the rest earmarked for maintenance and operations. Supporters must collect more than 150,000 valid signatures by July 5 to get the initiative on the November ballot.”
  • For Education Week, Daarel Burnette II reports: “These funding wars in many states have spilled over into this fall’s midterm elections in which more than two-thirds of state legislative seats and 36 governorships—those positions with the most say over school spending—are up for election. More than 100 teachers have filed to run for state office in Arizona, Kentucky, and Oklahoma after they failed to get all they demanded from their strikes and protests.”

There are also reasons not to be too hopeful.  It is evident in Kansas that repairing years of tax cuts and underfunding of public education will be neither quick nor easy. In Kansas an all-Republican legislature has fought hard against the Kansas Supreme Court, which has established a deadline for a remedy in the long-running school funding case of Gannon v. Kansas. In May, the legislature came up with a minimal remedy, and Governor Jeff Colyer signed the final plan, leaving it up to the Court to approve the remedy for years of catastrophic underfunding during former-governor Sam Brownback’s era of tax cuts.  Attorneys for plaintiff school districts followed up early in May, however, to demand that the court shut down the state’s schools unless the legislature comes up with an additional $1.5 billion by June 30.  Later in the month, the Associated Press’s John Hanna reported that on May 22, when the Kansas Supreme Court reviewed the legislature’s new plan: “A majority of the Kansas Supreme Court expressed skepticism… that the Legislature and governor raised public school funding enough in the short term to comply with the state constitution, suggesting they could be wrestling this summer with providing more money and possibly increasing taxes.” A year ago, legislators overcame Brownback’s veto and finally raised taxes, though it wasn’t enough to compensate for years of cuts. The Court will announce its decision by June 30.

And in Oklahoma, strong political pushback has emerged against the minimal concessions made to striking teachers this spring.  Oklahoma law requires three-fourths majorities in both houses of the legislature to pass any kind of tax increase. Under pressure from striking teachers, the legislature passed taxes on tobacco, oil and gas production, and motor fuels, but now far-right, former U.S. Senator Tom Coburn is working with Oklahoma Taxpayers Unite! on a petition to block this first tax increase in Oklahoma since 1990. Coburn says teachers do deserve a raise, but it can be paid for by cutting waste in an already meager state budget: “Coburn said ‘ineffective and lazy state government’ is to blame for Oklahoma’s woes. He singled out what might be described as a $30 million shell game at the state Health Department as an example of poor management and oversight… Oklahoma Taxpayers Unite! has until July 18 together about 42,000 valid signatures on its petition, after which repeal of HB1010xx (the recently passed tax increases) would go to a vote of the people.”

What teachers taught us in the most personal way all spring continues to be confirmed by experts. And the crisis permeates many states beyond this spring’s walkouts.  In a brief for the Education Law Center, Rutgers University school finance expert, Bruce Baker reminds us:

  • “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 of dollars short per pupil, of funding required to reach average student outcomes.
  • “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.
  • “In numerous states, only the lowest-poverty districts have sufficient funding to achieve national average outcomes (but many low-poverty districts still do not have sufficient funding).
  • “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….”

Baker also cautions us to consider a basic principle largely ignored by state legislative bodies who continue enacting regressive tax policy: “It costs more to achieve common outcomes in higher-poverty than in lower-poverty settings; in addition, costs associated with poverty rise as population density rises.”

I hope the school teachers who led the way this spring and the rest of us can manage to sustain the hope and momentum inspired by teachers’ recent wildcat walkouts. Teachers reminded us of the truth of the late Senator Paul Wellstone’s words: “That all citizens will be given an equal start through a sound education is one of the most basic, promised rights of our democracy. Our chronic refusal as a nation to guarantee that right for all children…. is rooted in a kind of moral blindness, or at least a failure of moral imagination…. It is a failure which threatens our future as a nation of citizens called to a common purpose… tied to one another by a common bond.”