Just Perhaps an Education Spring Is Beginning to Bud

While teachers have been demonstrating in the state capitals of West Virginia, Oklahoma, and Kentucky, a huge fight about the subject of their demonstrations—the failure of states adequately to fund public education—has been going on without so much fanfare in Kansas, where legislators have fought and failed so far to arrive at any kind of compromise about raising funds to comply with a deadline set by the state’s supreme court.

Facing an April 30 deadline set by the Kansas Supreme Court to come up with enough funds to undo years years of catastrophic tax slashing by former Governor Sam Brownback and the same legislature, this week Republican leaders in the Kansas Legislature debated plans for phasing in minimal additional funding over five years—one plan with $274 million and and another with $520 million.  They have also been talking about a tired, old strategy: Attack the Supreme Court itself. Here is the Associated Press report on this latest idea brought to the legislature: “A coalition of Kansas business and agricultural groups is proposing a constitutional amendment that would give the Legislature sole authority to decide education funding levels…. The constitutional amendment proposed by the Kansas Coalition for Fair Funding would remove the state court’s role in deciding what constitutes suitable education funding….”

By contrast, as teachers marched and filled statehouse lobbies this month in West Virginia, Oklahoma and Kentucky, at least some progress was made to repair years and years of austerity budgeting caused by years and years of tax slashing.  All four states—including Kansas—are part of today’s 26-state, all Red wave of Republican trifecta states. In these statehouses large blocks of legislators have signed Grover Norquist’s never-raise-taxes-in-my-lifetime pledge. These general assemblies are dominated by membership in the American Legislative Exchange Council.

That’s why, despite that the teachers haven’t been winning every salary or pension or state education budget fight, it is necessary to point out that striking teachers have at least begun to apply enough pressure to staunch the bleeding. That’s why Kentucky’s Lexington Herald-Leader‘s editorial board thanked the teachers who have been protesting: “Lawmakers knew that fired-up educators and pro-education Kentuckians, who filled the Capitol for weeks, were watching. That’s a big reason the Republicans who control the General Assembly abandoned some of Republican Gov. Matt Bevin’s and their own worst ideas for cutting public pensions and public spending. Instead lawmakers chose—of all things—to raise taxes. Many had to break the pledge that they had signed to oppose all tax increases. They responded to the needs and demands of Kentuckians rather than answer to distant anti-government puppet masters. That’s refreshing and encouraging.”  The editorial goes on to explain that the tax increase was the most regressive kind of consumption-sales tax and that the Kentucky legislature did at the same time further cut taxes on the state’s richest citizens, but teachers at least succeeded in securing some funding for the state’s children and their schools as they also demanded that their own pension system be fixed.  (Kentucky is among the fifteen states where teachers do not qualify for Social Security. The pension system provides their sole retirement benefit.)

This week the teachers’ walkouts and teachers’ protests of Red-state tax slashing have also made it as a topic of the commentariat.  Teachers have managed to make visible what has been a widespread problem for years—a problem of state-by-state tax policy that has slipped beneath the radar because it is too wonky and also too easy to castigate as somebody else’s problem.  Without mentioning the teachers themselves, the NY Times columnist and economist Paul Krugman, writing on Monday, explained, “I think we have to acknowledge the role of self-destructive politics… (C)onsider how some states, like Kansas and Oklahoma—both of which were relatively affluent in the 1970s, but have now fallen far behind—have gone in for radical tax cuts, and ended up savaging their education systems.”

The Washington Post’s E.J. Dionne Jr. also suddenly noticed state tax slashing, austerity budgeting, and public school under-funding: “The new teacher activism—born in West Virginia and spreading to Oklahoma, Kentucky and Arizona—is not a flash in the pan. And it’s about more than the demand for higher wages and benefits. It is a revolt against decades of policies that gutted public institutions… Today’s rebellion… is also built on genuine disaffection, in this case over the impact of deep budget cutbacks in conservative states, usually to support tax cuts tilted toward corporations and the well-off.  The teachers are bringing this home by refusing to confine their energies to their own pay.  They are highlighting the deterioration of the conditions students face—aging textbooks, crumbling buildings and reductions in actual teaching time… The red-state insurrections are a reminder of something that can be lost in our back-and-forth about school reform: Money matters.  You can’t run a decent school system on the cheap.  If you could, successful suburban school districts wouldn’t invest so much, and teacher pay is part of this.”

If such columnists regularly wrote about all children’s right to well funded public schools, there would not be such a need for blogs like this one.

Dionne and other columnists recommend that we notice the work of Brooklyn College political scientist, Corey Robin, who believes we may be observing the emergence of a revolution against the anti-tax conservative orthodoxy of the last forty years.  Robin theorizes that our current situation began with the passage—largely ignored in the political season when it was passed by referendum in 1978—of California’s tax freeze, Proposition 13: “which radically gutted property taxes in California and made it extremely difficult to raise taxes in the future. This was the real harbinger of the country’s future, a fundamental assault on the postwar liberal settlement of high taxes, high state spending, high public services….”

Robin continues: “It’s 40 years later… Right now, in the reddest of states, in the places you’d least expect it, teachers are starting a movement not only to raise their salaries and improve the schools, not only to reverse the assault on public education, not only to reverse the rule of Scott Walker which was supposed to provide a national model across the country, but to confront the real governing order of the last 40 years: the Prop 13 order.  In West Virginia, Oklahoma, Kentucky, and Arizona, we’re seeing the real resistance, the most profound and deepest attack on the basic assumptions of the contemporary governing order.”

I am a resident of all-Red Ohio, whose property tax freeze—similar to Prop. 13—is embedded in our state’s constitution. Ohio is also a state where tax cuts for corporations and the rich have been undermining public school funding for years.

I am grateful to the public school teachers who have been striking this month to improve not only their salaries but also their working—and our children’s learning—conditions.

However, by paying attention to the impasse in the Kansas General Assembly, we can see that turning around what Robin calls “the Prop 13 order” will be neither quick nor easy. We’ll need persistently to stand with teachers as they rise up against educational austerity in Red-state America.

This blog has covered this month’s walkouts by teachers here, here, here and here.