Tax Reform, the Common Good, and Public Education

Nikolai Vitti became Detroit’s public school superintendent last April. Last week in the Detroit News, Superintendent Vitti published what sounds radically counter cultural: a school district vision statement that leaves out charter schools, school choice, blaming and firing teachers, and any mention of test scores (though the Every Student Succeeds Act will require that Detroit keep on testing its students). Here is some of what Superintendent Vitti says:

“We now have an empowered and elected school board for the first time in years….” “Detroit will not reach its full potential without a stronger traditional public education system. Children need to feel safe, empowered and supported when attending school. Students will make mistakes but learn from them through a more progressive code of conduct focused on positive behavior support, restorative practices, not exclusionary strategies.” “(P)riorities are rooted in developing a child-centric organization that ensures college-and career/technical-ready programing exists across the district in every school; retaining, developing and recruiting the strongest teachers and leaders, and being more strategic and aligned with our resources. Our other priority to focus on the whole child will expand access to enrichment activities such as art, music, athletics, chess, cultural field trips and electives… This spring we will launch a Parent Academy to empower our parents to play a more active role in their child’s education. Teachers will visit students’ home to create stronger relationships with parents… While our schools must own the challenge and opportunity poverty presents, we must recognize that public schools cannot lift children out of poverty alone. We must face the truth that although poverty affects all people, historical and institutional racism exacerbates poverty based on race.”  Vitti also describes schools as centers with wraparound services like health, mental health and dental services for students and families.

Vitti’s vision cannot be realized without nurturing collaboration, building trust, and honoring the professionals who will work with children every day.  It is also grounded in Vitti’s belief in public responsibility.

Which is where he may run into trouble in our era when politicians are focused instead on tax reform—defined as tax cuts for corporations and the very wealthy.

In a brief last week for the Center on Budget and Policy Priorities, Sharon Parrot describes the Senate tax bill that, “has the same basic flaws as the House bill.”  “The core of the bill is a large corporate tax cut that would overwhelmingly benefit wealthy households, along with a tax cut for ‘pass-through’ businesses that’s also heavily tilted to high-income households and an estate tax cut worth $4.4 million (for estates from couples) for the nation’s very largest estates. These tax cuts are so costly that they require offsets like removing the tax deduction for state and local taxes to comply with the limitation that the tax cuts only increase deficits by $1.5 trillion over a decade. They leave little room for meaningful help to low- and moderate-income families.”

An earlier brief from the Center on Budget and Policy Priorities explains what the Center is calling, “the Republican Two-Step Fiscal Agenda.” “When deficits rise, those who supported the tax cuts will likely label these deficits as unacceptable and point to spending as the culprit. When that happens, they presumably will call for the kinds of deep cuts they’ve already proposed in their long-range budget plans, which would hit education, basic assistance for struggling families, health care, and other key investments. Those cuts could happen as soon as next year.”

The brief continues: “President Trump and Republican House and Senate leaders have been very clear on the areas they want to cut.  The Trump, House, and Senate budget plans for the next decade all would cut basic assistance and health care for millions of low- and moderate-income families with children, along with investments and services in areas such as education, job training, infrastructure, and environmental protection… The federal government provides modest but important support for K-12 education, about three-quarters of it through two large formula grant programs aimed at helping low-income and disadvantaged students and students with disabilities. Education aid is part of the non-defense discretionary budget category, which the Trump, House, and Senate budget plans would cut deeply, on top of cuts already imposed since 2010… Cuts of this magnitude would almost certainly affect aid to local schools. Although the budget plans are vague about what they intend to cut in future years, education seems an especially likely target because it has already been a target of congressional Republicans and the Trump Administration…”

As one watches the tax reform debate in Congress, it is easy to become overwhelmed by the technicality of much of the discussion or confused about which of the specific proposals would help or hurt whom. The Center on Budget and Policy Priorities is trying to keep us all focused on the big picture: if corporations and the very rich get huge tax cuts, the money has to come from somewhere. And past cuts to non-defense domestic discretionary spending have already been so deep that further cuts to what are already meager programs will inevitably limit what Superintendent Vitti is able to accomplish in already-distressed Detroit.

Societies are judged by the way they care for their most vulnerable citizens. Because government policy and services are central to serving the common good, paying taxes for government services is a civic responsibility of individuals and businesses—with the heaviest responsibility on those with the greatest financial means.

Ideological Battle Threatens the Common Good

The situation in the state of Illinois is deplorable.  The Chicago Tribune reports that Republican Governor Bruce Rauner is trying to save money by shifting “government functions to the private sector.  Since January, he’s formed a private not-for-profit corporation to handle the state’s business recruitment efforts; announced a plan to allow private companies to build and manage new toll lanes along a congested stretch of the Stevenson Expressway; and called for private donors to step in to help the financially struggling state museums and fairgrounds.”

Sara Burnett, for the Associated Press, reports that Illinois has cut more than $1 billion from its education budget since 2009.  Meanwhile Illinois has not yet passed the state budget for the current fiscal year that ends on June 30.  Although some money was set aside for schools, the results are catastrophic.  Burnett describes small school districts in southern Illinois in danger of closing their doors: “Unthinkable even a few months ago, the possibility of the (budget) impasse extending to a second year and shutting down school systems has grown stronger in recent weeks.  If it happens, it would be the most traumatic consequence of a fight between the state’s Republican governor, Bruce Rauner, and Democrats who run the legislature, and mark a new low for political dysfunction in the nation’s fifth-largest state.”  Burnett adds, “While money has stopped flowing for most social service programs, schools continued to get their state funding this year.  But that support is in doubt for the new fiscal year that begins in July, and no one knows exactly how long Illinois’ school districts can last without state funds to supplement local property tax revenue and cash reserves… (A)bout 130—or 15 percent of the total (school districts) statewide—had less than 90 days in cash reserves as of last summer…. The numbers for most districts are bleaker today….”

Writing for Catalyst Chicago, a journal that tracks issues in the Chicago Public Schools, Maureen Kelleher explains that in 2010 the state addressed school funding, setting a foundation amount of state aid-per-pupil at $6,119.  When the federal stimulus funds ran out, however, that money was never delivered.  The results have been catastrophic for small and very poor districts that lack sufficient taxable property to build up reserves.  The consequences are also dangerous for city school districts like Chicago, especially when there is a decline in enrollment exacerbated by the rapid expansion of charter schools.

State universities were not protected (as school districts were) this year, and those with the smallest endowments remain in danger of closing.  Burnett reports, “Chicago State University, a four-year institution that primarily serves African-American students that opened in 1867, was on the verge of closing at month’s end before lawmakers last week passed a stop-gap funding measure that colleges say still falls short of a full budget.”  In early April,  Julie Bosman described Chicago State University’s crisis in the NY Times: “Since last July, when the fiscal year began, the university has received zero dollars from the state, though it relies on Illinois for 30 percent of its $105 million budget… In February, the school declared a financial emergency.  Officials canceled spring break and moved commencement up to April 28, rushing to finish the semester…. Last month, members of the faculty and staff were notified that the school was making contingency plans to collect their keys.” Until the emergency funds arrived, money to pay faculty and staff were expected to run out on April 30.

At Chicago Theological Seminary, the Rev. John Thomas has been closely tracking the crisis at Chicago State all year.  Despite that the legislature provided short-term emergency funding in late April, Rev. Thomas reminds his readers: “After September the future remains bleak.”

He continues: “Nearly 70 percent of students in the nation’s most selective colleges are from the top economic quartile.”  In contrast,  “Over the last twenty years CSU has graduated more African American students each year than any other university—public or private—in the state of Illinois.  Faculty members engage not just in traditional teaching and scholarship, but in supporting ill prepared students from challenging households succeed. Tuition is $10,000 to $12,000 a year, making it far more affordable than other options… If Chicago State closes, many, if not most of the current student body will not re-enroll anywhere else….  The ripple effects will also be devastating.  Chicago State has historically graduated a high percentage of the school teachers, nurses, pharmacists, social workers, and business people working in the South Side’s under-served neighborhoods.  And it is a significant employer for the community already staggering under economic strains.”

There is something deeply wrong when ideology seems to have driven our society way off course. Traditionally our society has endorsed the principle that tax and budget policies should reduce disparities between rich and poor, strengthen democracy, and provide greater opportunity. Paying taxes for government services has been accepted for generations as a civic responsibility of individuals and businesses. We have also traditionally believed that the tax code ought to be progressive, with the heaviest burden on those with the greatest financial means. And we have prized public schools and public universities as the very heart of a good society.

Did You Read Thomas Piketty’s Comments on Public Education?

Thomas Piketty is the French economist and author of the best selling Capital in the Twenty-First Century, in which he critiques rising income inequality.  Earlier this week in a television interview later reported at SALON.com, Piketty endorses investing in the U.S. public education system—the institutions that serve the 99 percent. He condemns political strategies, specifically those of Jeb Bush, that emphasize competition in an education marketplace.

About Bush’s record on education, Piketty says, “From what I can see he doesn’t want to invest more resources into education.  He just wants more competition… there’s limited evidence that this is working.  And I think most of all what we need is to put more public resources in the education system.  Again, if you look at the kind of school, high school, community college that middle social groups in America have access to, this has nothing to do with the very top schools and universities that some other groups have access to.”

When asked if American economic inequality is the result of a failing education system that ill-prepares students, Piketty blames other factors affecting American workers: “There’s a lot of hypocrisy in the rhetoric of conservatives who condemn inequality while failing to support policies like an increased minimum wage and ramped-up infrastructure spending.” “The minimum wage today is lower than it was 50 years ago, unions are very weak, so you need to increase the minimum wage in this country today.  The views that $7 an hour is the most you can pay low-skilled workers in America today… I think is just wrong — it was more 50 years ago and there was no more unemployment 50 years ago than there is today.”

In the interview Piketty recognizes the importance of education, but he says the idea that education alone can be blamed for America’s current inequality is naively simplistic.  He adds that a society must be willing to pay for quality education. “You need wage policy and you need education policy.  And in order to have adequate education policy, you also need a proper tax policy so that you have the proper public resources to invest in these public services… You cannot say, like many of the Republicans are saying, we can keep cutting tax on these top income groups who have already benefited a lot from growth and globalization over the past 30 years.” “So I think there’s a lot of hypocrisy in this conservative rhetoric about the skill gap and the education gap.  If they are really serious about the skill gap and the education gap, then they cannot at the same time cut tax on the rich.”