Special Report
Federal

Public Torn Between Support for School Spending and Actually Paying the Tab

By Daarel Burnette II — June 04, 2019 8 min read
Teachers and education activists march from Riverfront Park to the Oregon State Capitol for a day of action Wednesday, May 8, 2019 in Salem, Ore. Tens of thousands of teachers across Oregon walked off the job Wednesday to demand more money for schools, holding signs and wearing red shirts that have become synonymous with a nationwide movement pushing lawmakers to better fund education.

The most remarkable thing about the recent wave of teacher strikes may be the widespread public support for something that’s ultimately going to put a squeeze on the taxpayer’s wallet.

Parents have skipped work to march with teachers seeking higher pay and higher spending on schools. Politicians have tweeted selfies standing in solidarity with the strikers. And at least four 2020 presidential candidates have come up with elaborate plans to raise teachers’ pay by thousands of dollars.

It’s a sharp contrast from the time less than a decade ago when local, state, and national politicians trying to recover from the recession were bent on slashing away at taxes—schools’ primary fuel—in order to get consumers to buy more and businesses to hire. They were convinced, they told the public, that school districts had too much money and just needed to find a way to spend it more effectively and more efficiently.

Now, in light of the teacher strikes, there’s an aggressive push by politicians in some states to undo tax cuts in order to shore up school districts’ budgets and teachers’ pay.

The question being debated this time around is how to do it in a fair, equitable, and effective way that won’t create a backlash among business leaders and taxpayers.

“There’s only so much political capacity states have to raise revenue,” said Rebecca Sibilia, the CEO of advocacy group EdBuild, which has pushed for government bodies to distribute resources to schools in a more equitable way. “You have this boiler, pressure cooker around folks who are advocating for more money all the time and legislators who are looking at the political landscape and who are saying, ‘We can’t raise any more money.’”

In its latest Quality Counts school finance analysis, for example, the Education Week Research Center found some big disparities in the proportion of total taxable resources states are willing to spend on education based on the latest federal figures—from highs of 5.4 percent in Vermont and 5.1 percent in Wyoming, to lows of 2.3 percent in North Carolina and 2.4 percent in Arizona.

In recent years, education advocates have mounted court challenges—successful in states such as Kansas and Washington—against what they say are grossly inequitable systems where the amount of money a school has to invest in a child depends on where the child lives.

At the same time, K-12 spending in recent years has eaten up a larger and larger share of states’ tax revenue. On average, K-12 spending takes up more than a quarter of states’ budgets. And while recent polls show swelling support for more money going toward schools, there remains sentiment among the general public that taxes are too high.

That sentiment may be shifting. A Pew Research poll conducted last year showed that, for the first time since 1968, less than half the nation’s voters felt their taxes were too high.

And many taxpayers still feel that schools waste tax dollars on unnecessary supplies, bloated administration, and other questionable costs.

“Our school districts are spending way too much money,” said Fred Gorman, a Nesconset, Long Island, resident who last year led a successful statewide campaign to cap the amount of money New York school districts can tax residents. “School districts need to learn to conserve, and they have to realize their own limitations.”

But public school advocates see momentum on their side. They argue that an investment in education is an investment in the state’s economy and will lead to future savings because of lower social-service and prison costs. And with the help of social media, they’ve trumpeted the need to pay teachers more and replace crumbling and overcrowded schools.

Scramble for Cash

In contrast to the recession years, the question for most states isn’t whether they have the money. Though there are exceptions, state coffers this year are flush with cash, the result of low unemployment rates, increased consumer spending, and rebounding property values.

But there are competing priorities. Politicians have had to decide whether to place their surpluses into savings, send the cash to school districts, or hand it back to taxpayers in the form of tax cuts.

The debate has fueled tensions at the ballot box. In last fall’s gubernatorial elections, Democrats in a number of states campaigned in part on raising more money for schools and teachers. While candidates Tony Evers in Wisconsin and Laura Kelly in Kansas were successful, that wasn’t the case for David Garcia in Arizona, Andrew Gillum in Florida, or Stacey Abrams in Georgia.

At the district level, superintendents across the country have tried to ride the wave of perceived public support for education to push local tax levies and bond issues that would benefit schools.

In Wisconsin, of the 82 districts that went to the polls for more money last fall, 77 got their ballot measures approved, resulting in $1.3 billion more for schools. That abnormally high approval rating was a sign, Evers said, that the public is looking for change.

“More than a million Wisconsinites have voted to raise their own property taxes because Republicans have failed to fully fund our public schools for the past eight years,” Evers, himself a former state superintendent, tweeted in April amid a pitched battle at the statehouse to increase state budget revenue for schools.

In one of the most contentious battles yet, voters in Los Angeles on June 4 struck down a proposed parcel tax that would have brought in more than $500 million annually for the district. In advance of the vote, the district had warned it would have to lay off scores of administrators and teachers and go back into negotiations with the teachers who went on strike in January to protest crowded classrooms and stagnant wages.

To counter that argument, the Los Angeles Chamber of Commerce funded an attack advertising campaign that cited middling academic results in the district, accused it of widespread misspending, and pointed out that officials negotiated a contract they could not ultimately afford.

“District bureaucrats and defenders of the failed status quo want taxpayers to bail out a school district with a history of red ink, appalling education results, declining enrollment, runaway administrative hiring, and exploding retirement and health-care costs,” a brochure mailed to potential voters said.

During the teacher strike earlier this year, polls showed that 54 percent strongly supported teachers, and 24 percent said they somewhat supported teachers. The proposed parcel tax—which required a two-thirds majority in order to pass—failed, with 54.3 percent voting no. The district leadership must now confront the challenge of paying for what it agreed to in order to end the strike.

West Coast Showdowns

The battle goes on at the state level as well.

California, one of the wealthiest states in the nation, has one of the most restrictive property-tax caps, which has resulted in a series of district budget cuts in recent years.

But sentiment for public schools could be changing statewide. A recent poll by the California School Boards Association shows that more than 60 percent of voters support taxing those making more than $1 million a year in order to annually raise more than $11 billion for schools.

To the north of California, Oregon is known for its residents’ hostility toward taxes. Several rural towns have cut taxes so low that in the past five years they’ve been forced to shutter their libraries.

This year, a proposal working its way toward final approval by voters would increase taxes statewide by half a percentage point on fewer than 10 percent of the state’s businesses in order to raise annually more than $1 billion for schools.

Republicans defiantly protested the measure, walking out of the Capitol building and charging that the increased taxes would be spent to pay down teachers’ pensions and would run businesses out of the state.

“Oregonians have emphatically said no to a tax on sales,” the Oregon Manufacturers and Commerce said in a statement. “This is a flawed policy and the product of a flawed process.”

Teachers staged a one-day strike to draw attention to the measure, and with Democrats in full control of the legislature and governor’s office, the bill ultimately passed. (It will still have to be approved at the polls in January in order for the tax revenue to be spent on schools.)

Other states embroiled in pitched battles between anti-tax advocates and public school supporters include Alaska, Massachusetts, Ohio, and Texas.

Federal Angle

While the federal government funds only about 10 percent of the nation’s education budget, several 2020 presidential candidates—among them former Vice President Joe Biden, and Sens. Kamala Harris of California, Bernie Sanders of Vermont, and Elizabeth Warren of Massachusetts—have made it clear that their sympathies are with advocates of increased funding and higher teacher pay.

For funding advocates, that’s all welcome rhetoric—but only if it’s attached to hard dollars.

“The only way [federal lawmakers] can get states to do the right thing is by giving them money to do it,” said Sibilia of EdBuild. “We should absolutely be paying teachers more. But with what money? Without marrying those two, it’s all lip service. Or a federal policy that’s going to come down to states that don’t have the money.”

And while some states may be raising taxes to provide schools more money, they still have a long way to go to make up for previous cutbacks.

“No question the rhetoric is changing,” said Mike Leachman, director of state fiscal research for the Center on Budget and Policy Priorities, an advocacy organization that pushes for more school spending and studies how tax policy and the economy affect school spending.

He said states are reversing course to some extent in response to teacher protests. But he added that for more than half of the states, “although these are steps in the right direction, their funding is still well below pre-recession level.”

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