Following Teachers’ Protests this Spring, NY Times Continues Coverage of School Funding Woes

What happened to North Carolina over the last decade?  North Carolina used to be the state highlighted for quality education in the South, but then it flipped all-Red. The legislature became all-Republican in 2010, and in 2012, voters elected Pat McCrory, a conservative businessman as Governor—creating an all-Red trifecta state lacking checks and balances until McCrory was defeated in 2016.

In a report last December for the North Carolina Justice Center, Kris Nordstrom describes the destruction of public education that followed the state’s political transformation: “North Carolina was once viewed as the shining light for progressive education policy in the South.  State leaders—often with the support of the business community—were able to develop bipartisan support for public schools, and implement popular, effective  programs… The state made great strides to professionalizing the teaching force, bringing the state’s average teacher salary nearly up to the national average…. In addition, North Carolina focused on developing and retaining its teaching force by investing in teacher scholarship programs and mentoring programs for beginning teachers… Unfortunately, over the past seven years, North Carolina has lost its reputation for educational excellence. Since the Republican takeover of the General Assembly following the 2010 election, the state has become more infamous for bitter partisanship and divisiveness, as reflected in education policies. Lawmakers have passed a number of controversial, partisan measures, rapidly expanding school choice, cutting school resources, and eliminating job protections for teachers… One commonality of nearly all of the initiatives… is that they were folded into omnibus budget bills, rather than moved through a deliberative committee process.”

In a fine story in Wednesday’s NY Times, Dana Goldstein describes what the collapse of financial support for public schools in North Carolina has meant for one poor, rural school in eastern North Carolina’s Greene County and for third-grade teacher, Keshia Speight: “Everyone at West Greene knows Mrs. Speight is special. She won teacher of the year in just her second year on the job. She’s 45 and earns about $37,000 a year. That’s more than $21,000 less than the national average and $12,000 less than the state average. She has $25,000 of student debt. The worksheets (used by her students)… have often been printed by Mrs. Speight on the printer she bought for the classroom using her own money. The cartridges are always running out, and Mrs. Speight buys those, too, at $30 a pop. She buys pencils and educational games and other supplies—more than she can keep track of. In some years, she said, she spends as much as $1,000 of her own money.”

The shortage of money has cut deeper than classroom supply budgets: “There used to be a full-time library assistant here to help students select books and check them out. The assistant now works half time. The district once paid for teachers to participate in National Board Certification, a prestigious professional development program, but no longer has the money to do so. An after-school tutoring program recently ended when the grant that was paying for it ran out.”

The school district has invested in computers and tablets over the years, and Mrs. Speight believes technology is important, as many of her students entirely lack access to the internet at home. But Superintendent Patrick Miller is torn by impossible choices—teachers or technology: “Principals often tell Patrick Miller… that they’d rather hire educators than purchase new technology. There isn’t always money to do both. North Carolina schools get most of their money from the state. They have less of it now, adjusted for inflation than they did before the recession, because of tax cuts and rising costs for health care and pensions. Wealthy areas have been able to make up for the lost funds through property taxes. Orange County, home to Chapel Hill, supplements state school money with an additional $4,852 per student. Greene County supplements it with just $736 per student.”

Goldstein’s fine article on Greene County Schools’ funding shortage followed an earlier NY Times analysis, Robert Gebeloff’s background piece at The Upshot, on the state of school funding across the states: “(W)hile the protests are spreading this year, the underlying conflict between public school employees and policymakers has roots in decisions made during the last recession, when states and local districts short of cash curtailed education spending for the first time in decades. This had a pronounced effect on school staffing, with layoffs hitting many states. Districts cut support staff as well as regular classroom teachers.  In North Carolina, the number of teachers is down 5 percent since peaking in 2009, while the number of teaching assistants is 28 percent lower. And teacher pay stagnated nonetheless… For a system that had experienced nothing but spending growth for a quarter century, the past few years have been a major shock. K-12 spending per pupil rose 26 out of 29 years before 2010, only to tumble three consecutive years at the beginning of this decade.”

Gebeloff adds: “Then came a one-two punch to the growth in education spending: The recession worsened financial problems already widespread in many states, and voters began electing conservative governors and legislatures that promised to rein in budget woes with spending cuts. Almost every state reduced education spending during the recession. But as the national economy recovered, education spending did not return to the historical pattern of steady growth across all states. By 2016, more than half of states controlled by Democrats had restored education spending per pupil to 2009 levels, but the same was true in only 5 of 22 states controlled by Republicans. Some red states have seen slower growth in state and local revenues… The Center on Budget and Policy Priorities… notes that seven states with school funding controversies—Arizona, Idaho, Kansas, Michigan, Mississippi, North Carolina and Oklahoma—cut taxes in recent years… North Carolina teachers once ranked 19th in the nation in pay, but now rank 37th.”

A final note: If you question why public education spending rose consistently over the years prior to the Great Recession, please consult Richard Rothstein’s research for the Economic Policy Institute, research showing that 38 percent of added funding over these years was devoted to services for severely handicapped children who began to be served in the public schools after 1975, with the passage by Congress of the Individuals with Disabilities Education Act.

Walkouts by Teachers Spread to Arizona and Colorado

The Economic Policy Institute’s Sylvia Allegretto identifies the teacher pay gap in all the states: the difference between average salaries for schoolteachers and for other college graduates. Arizona and Colorado, where teachers walked out last Thursday and Friday, represent the two states where the gap is widest among all the fifty states.  In Arizona, public school teachers make only 62.8 percent and in Colorado 64.5 percent of the salaries of other college graduates. And in both states the cost of living is quickly rising.

Surely their paltry wages are part of the reason school teachers in these states have mounted major protests at their state capitols, but conditions in the schools where they teach are the other reason.

Here are some realities in Arizona, where teachers continued their strike yesterday. The Washington Post’s Moriah Balingit reports: “When adjusted for inflation, Arizona cut total state per-pupil funding by 37 percent between 2008 and 2015, more than any other state.  That has led to relatively low teacher salaries, crumbling school buildings, and the elimination of free full-day kindergarten in some districts… Low teacher pay has contributed to teacher shortages in Arizona. Some districts, unable to find qualified teaching candidates, have turned to emergency long-term substitutes who are required to hold only a high school diploma.”

Writing for Education Week, Daarel Burnete II adds: “Arizona is one of seven states that, in response to voter demands, has cut income taxes in the last decade, a revenue source schools rely on heavily. In 2016 alone, the state allowed $13.7 billion to go uncollected through a series of income, sales, and other tax exemptions, deductions, allowances, exclusions, or credits, according to the state’s department of revenue.  At the same time, Arizona has made among the most dramatic budget cuts in the nation to its schools, totaling 14 percent in the last decade alone… The paradox is that Arizona’s economy is in its best condition in years.  Its unemployment rate stands at 4.9 percent, and the state’s 100 largest corporations added more than 20,000 jobs last year alone.”

Arizona Governor Doug Ducey has promised teachers a 20 percent raise over five years and also promised to do it without a tax increase.  Striking teachers do not believe his plan will produce the raises he has promised. Neither do they believe he will be able significantly to increase overall school funding.  NY Times columnist Michelle Goldberg describes what she found when she visited schools in Arizona last week: “I visited a K-8 school in the scrublands of South Phoenix, a flat, dusty, wide-open area that’s only a 15-minute drive from downtown but feels much farther.  (The principal asked me not to identify it, or him, for fear that his school would suffer administrative reprisals for letting a journalist in.)  The science teacher told me her classes have 30-36 students each.  Aside from desks, she’d either bought most of what was in her classroom, or had it donated—not just books, but also chairs and even a water dispenser, which the class needed during the seven months when the school’s drinking fountains were broken… The teacher… was sad and anxious about the walkout, but had voted for it out of desperation. ‘I’m at a breaking point,’ she told me. ‘We don’t have the resources. I’m spending more and more money out of my own pocket, and I can’t have the impact that I want to have with the way things are now. Something needs to happen.'”

Colorado’s capacity to fund its schools is complicated by an American Legislative Exchange Council backed Taxpayer Bill of Rights, a TABOR, adopted into Colorado’s state constitution in 1992. Here is a description about how Colorado’s TABOR affects school funding: “(W)hat it basically means is that lawmakers can’t raise your taxes without making you vote on it first. And it also limits how much of a ‘raise,’ so to speak, that the state gets each year. And, if the state happens to generate too much money, it can’t keep it. Instead, this goes back to taxpayers.”  TABOR and other tax freezes and limitations in Colorado mean that state’s allocation for school districts has declined steadily.

The Center on Budget and Policy Priorities explains further that Colorado is the only state that has embedded a TABOR into its constitution despite attempts in other states, where voters have defeated passage of this kind of restrictive policy that is being promoted by far-right anti-tax interests. More than a decade after the TABOR was passed, Colorado’s revenue collapsed so completely that: “In 2005, Colorado voters approved a measure to suspend TABOR’s formula for five years to allow the state to rebuild its public services. Unfortunately, the suspension did not last long enough for the state to recover fully from the period that TABOR was in effect, and the Great Recession further undermined that effort.  TABOR continues to cause ongoing fiscal headaches for Colorado even as the economy improves.”

The state’s school funding morass due to the TABOR means that Colorado teachers’ purpose in rallying is a little different than in Arizona.  The Los Angeles Times’ Michael Livingston reports: “Meanwhile, in Colorado, an upcoming ballot measure in November could tip the scales in the students’ favor. The ‘Great Schools, Thriving Communities’ measure would increase tax rates for corporations and for people who make more than $150,000 annually. The money would be used to increase base funding for all students, provide full-day kindergarten and increase funding from the state to local districts for English language classes and special education.”

Unfortunately the prospects for passage of the ballot initiative are unsure: The Post‘s Moriah Balingit summarizes the tenuous financial situation faced by school teachers in TABOR-constrained Colorado: “The stagnant salaries, combined with skyrocketing housing prices in the booming state, have made life untenable for many educators. The state’s constitution gives only voters the authority to raise taxes, and they have twice rejected such proposals.”

Teachers in Arizona and Colorado have now joined their counterparts in West Virginia, Oklahoma, and Kentucky to expose what it means for children and their teachers when far-right governments impose tax freezes and slash taxes.  As NY Times columnist and Nobel Prize winning economist Paul Krugman explained very plainly last week: “Education accounts for more than half of the state and local (public) work force….  What tax cuts do.. is sharply reduce revenue, wreaking havoc with state finances. For a great majority of states are required by law to balance their budgets. That means that when tax receipts plunge, the conservatives running many states can’t do what Trump and his allies in Congress are doing at the federal level—simply let the budget deficit balloon.  Instead they have to cut spending. And given the centrality of education to state and local budgets, that puts schoolteachers in the cross hairs.”