Candidates in Midterms Spar Over School Funding vs. Taxes

Kansas Insurance Commissioner Ken Selzer, left, Gov. Jeff Colyer, center, and Secretary of State Kris Kobach await the start of a Republican gubernatorial primary debate on June 23 in Salina, Kan.
Kansas Insurance Commissioner Ken Selzer, left, Gov. Jeff Colyer, center, and Secretary of State Kris Kobach await the start of a Republican gubernatorial primary debate on June 23 in Salina, Kan.
—John Hanna/AP
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How—or whether—to pour more money into public school coffers has emerged as one of the most divisive issues for states in this year’s midterm elections.

In at least nine states, voters this fall will consider ambitious ballot measures that seek to increase, or in some cases curtail, how much legislatures distribute to schools.

Similarly, those running for governor in states including Arizona, Pennsylvania, and Wisconsin have sparred over the dynamics of their states’ public school spending habits and over plans to upend how their states fund schools.

There are 36 governor races this year, and three-fourths of state legislature seats are up for grabs.

While both Democratic and Republican politicians alike have in the past touted how much they love public schools, this year’s battles are supercharged by the teacher and parent activism that led to walkouts in various states, as well as fierce anti-tax and spending forces.

And while the economy has roared back to life in recent years, public schools in large swaths of the country are still starved for money.

State sales tax revenue has flattened as more people shop online and, while unemployment is at historic lows, earnings have not rebounded to pre-Recession levels. Options like marijuana and casino tax revenue have failed in the past to generate enough cash to meet schools’ pent up needs. That leaves schools more and more dependent on local property taxes.

“Legislatures are having a really difficult time,” said Michael Griffith, a senior school finance analyst for the Education Commission of the States. “Taxpayers are not willing to be taxed much more. The types of taxes we have are antiquated. It’s based on an industrial economy, not a service economy. Even though the economy is fairly stable, perhaps, it’s not manifested in district spending.”

In addition, most states’ funding formulas are outdated, and state courts, advocacy groups, and parents have all been pushing state politicians to overhaul the way they spend between schools. A study out of Massachusetts last week found that the state’s 25-year-old funding formula leaves schools more than $1 billion annually short of providing students the sorts of services necessary to meet state benchmarks.

Political Infighting

But across the country, Republicans, who control most state legislatures, are at odds with each other over whether to continue touting tax cuts, which in states like Kansas have put severe pressure on state revenues, including for schools.

And embattled Democrats are divided over what strategies will realistically bail out public schools.

Nowhere, arguably, is the political infighting over school funding more intense (or consequential) than it is in Kansas. As part of a long-standing lawsuit, the state’s supreme court in late June said the state owes its public schools another $300 million. In response to a previous court order, the state added $500 million last spring to its public school budget.

In the weeks leading up to the Aug. 7 primary, the state’s Republican party is divided over how to respond. Kansans are both deeply hostile toward taxes and deeply loyal to their public schools, a tightrope politicians have in the past had a tough time walking.

The divide was apparent at a recent Republican forum where five gubernatorial candidates, including Republican Gov. Jeff Colyer, were all over the map on what to do about K-12 spending—give schools hundreds of millions more dollars, defy the court order, further crack down on school spending habits, or even reinstate now-partially repealed draconian tax cuts.

“Gov. Colyer signed a bill paying a $500 million ransom, thinking that that would be enough,” said GOP candidate Kris Kobach, who also serves as Kansas’ secretary of state. “Look, this game is never going to end.”

Kobach said he would cut taxes and require districts to spend a higher portion of their money on the classroom.

“Kris Kobach doesn’t want to support additional money for schools,” Colyer countered. “I think Kansas schools need that money. Otherwise, his policy will close Kansas schools, particularly our rural schools.”

While Republicans control 32 of the nation’s statehouses, Democrats this fall are looking to ride the coattails of recent teacher strikes back into power.

In Arizona, where teachers across the state this spring staged a week-long walkout to protest both their salaries and school funding amounts, Democrats have blamed the Republicans’ tax cuts and school choice policies for funding cuts to schools. Republican Gov. Doug Ducey and the state’s Republican-dominated legislature have promised teachers a 20 percent raise by 2020, but teachers say that’s not enough.

Arizona Democratic candidate Steve Farley says if elected he will close several tax loopholes created over the years.

“There’s an emerging consensus here that we need to invest a significant amount of funding into the public education system,” Farley said in a recent interview. “This governor and this legislature have chosen repeatedly to provide corporate loopholes that have done nothing to help us.”

His opponent for the Democratic nomination, David Garcia, said in an interview that he will push to raise taxes on the state’s wealthiest residents.

“We’ve got to be honest with Arizonans,” Garcia said. “We’re not going to solve this issue unless we raise new revenue. We can’t shuffle the deck and get out of this.”

Meanwhile, Ducey, who is running for re-election, has attacked his opponents as unrealistic and says closing loopholes and raising taxes would ultimately hurt the state’s economy.

In recent weeks, Ducey has targeted his ire toward teachers who are backing a ballot measure that would raise to 8 percent the tax rate for residents who make more than $250,000 and to 9 percent for residents who make over $500,000. (Both groups are currently taxed at 4.54 percent.) It’s expected to bring public schools more than $690 million a year.

“For the activists, for the government union, it was never about teacher pay,” he said during a speech July 7. “What it was truly about is what will likely be on the ballot this November, which is a tax increase.”

Sidestepping the Politicans

Like the teachers in Arizona, both public school and anti-tax activists in other states have decided to sidestep politicians and directly ask voters to increase school funding.

An anti-tax group in Oklahoma abandoned its efforts earlier this month to place on the ballot a measure that would repeal a series of new taxes that led to statewide teacher pay raises. Teachers en masse are running for state office there to push for more school funding.

Floridians will consider a ballot measure that would require two-thirds of the state’s legislature to approve any statewide tax increase. If approved, Florida would become the 16th state to require a super-majority of its legislature to pass taxes.

In Colorado, a “Taxpayer Bill of Rights” severely restricts the amount of money the state can spend and the amount of taxes it can collect without voter approval. That’s resulted, public school officials say, in a $6 billion shortfall over the last decade.

A group of activists earlier this month gathered enough signatures to place on the ballot this fall Initiative 93, which, if passed, would raise the tax rate on corporations and those making more than $150,000 in order to bring more than $1.6 billion to the state’s public schools.

“What we heard over and over from community members is that they had no idea how bad funding for our schools has gotten and the impacts on students and educators,” said Kerrie Dallman, the president of the Colorado Education Association. “Our hope is that that translates to the ballot box in November.”

As this fall’s election nears, the attacks between politicians over school funding have ramped up, catching some politicians off guard.

Caught Off Guard

Wisconsin’s state Superintendent Tony Evers, a leading Democratic candidate in that state’s governor’s race, has regularly accused incumbent Gov. Scott Walker, a Republican, of slashing hundreds of millions of dollars from the state’s public schools.

But in a glossy ad circulating around the state, Walker, along with a public school teacher, touts the state’s most recently approved budget, which they say added an extra $200 per pupil in spending.

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“We’re putting students first,” Walker says as pictures of students studying fade in and out of the screen.

And in Pennsylvania, incumbent Democratic Gov. Tom Wolf has been fending off accusations by Republican opponent Scott Wagner that his proposed new funding formula, unveiled in June during a well-attended press conference, will result in drastic cuts to the state’s rural public schools.

“Try as he might, Tom Wolf cannot hide from the fact that he is in support of a disastrous proposal that would cut $1.2 billion from 362 school districts,” Wagner said in a press release.

Wolf has retorted that Wagner himself has in the past supported several components of the proposal.

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