Education Funding

Tax-Wary Voters, Needy Schools a Volatile Mix

By Sean Cavanagh — November 08, 2011 7 min read
Sixth grader Julian Salazar travels to Wheat Ridge Middle School. Budget cuts have forced school officials in Colorado’s Jefferson County to close some schools. The district is also charging students a fee to ride school buses.

A year ago, Republicans piled up record victories in state elections on promises that they would keep taxes low and cut government spending—including money going to education.

Now, elected officials and other partisans are laying the foundation for arguments they will take to the electorate next year that depict the cuts delivered by many governors and lawmakers since the midterm elections as either necessary and justified, or shortsighted and harmful to schools.

State leaders and advocacy groups have previewed those debates over the past few months during a series of off-year-election battles focused heavily on K-12 issues, particularly teacher collective bargaining and spending on schools. The clashes included a closely watched referendum last week in Colorado, where voters rejected a tax-hike plan.

Those debates are also playing out amid public concerns about the flagging economy, which has sapped state and local revenues for schools, and which many analysts do not expect to improve soon.

Economic worries may have shaped the thinking of Colorado voters who, on Nov. 1, soundly defeated a referendum that asked them to approve new sales and income taxes that would have raised an estimated $3 billion for schools over five years. Backers of the plan had argued it would help make up for substantial recent budget cuts. Opponents countered that the tax hikes would stymie job growth and increase economic instability.

A number of observers, while cautioning against extrapolating too much from the election results in Colorado, predicted that candidates for governorships and legislative seats would stake out the same kinds of positions between now and the 2012 elections.

“We’re going to hear similar language,” said Dick Carpenter, an associate professor of leadership, research, and foundations at the University of Colorado at Colorado Springs. The argument coming from those who have made budget cuts to K-12, he said, is that “we’re in tough fiscal times, we have a reality, and we have to live within that fiscal reality.”

Those campaigning in favor of protecting school spending will argue in favor of “investing in tomorrow, in the form of our children,” and they may compare their states’ academic performance and spending with those of other states, where that information helps their cause, said Mr. Carpenter, who has studied political arguments made for education policies.

Sacrifice or Investment?

Such arguments do not always break down along predictable party lines, Mr. Carpenter noted. On the same day Colorado voters defeated the referendum on taxes, known as Proposition 103, Gov. John Hickenlooper, a Democrat, released a proposed budget that called for reducing K-12 spending by $97 million, to $4.2 billion, during the 2012-13 fiscal year.

Mr. Hickenlooper, who did not take a position on the referendum, cited a paucity of state revenue and budget shortfalls in explaining the budget cuts.

The Colorado ballot item would have raised the state income tax to 5 percent, from 4.63 percent, for households and businesses, and lifted the sales and use tax to 3 percent from 2.9 percent, with each tax hike expiring after five years. The measure did not specify how much of that money would be spent in preschool, K-12, or higher education; it would have left those decisions to state lawmakers.

Voters’ fixation on the economy almost certainly sapped some support for the Proposition 103, said one backer of the measure.

“We always knew it would be a struggle,” said Carol Hedges, the director of the Colorado Fiscal Policy Institute, a Denver-based organization that advocates for low-income residents and supported the proposition. “There’s economic instability, and it has families and people worrying about the welfare and condition of their own families.”

Budget cuts in the Jefferson County school district forced the shutdown of schools, including L.W. Martensen Elementary, which closed at the end of last school year.

Cindy Stevenson, the superintendent of the 86,000-student Jefferson County school system, in suburban Denver, said her district, which has a $932 million annual budget, is likely to be forced to make $70 million in cuts over two years, if it does not receive new revenue comparable to what the referendum might have provided. The school system already has taken several steps to cut costs, including a mandatory 3 percent pay cut for all employees, and a $150-per-student fee for taking the school bus, district officials said.

Some opponents of the Colorado tax measure argued that it would provide only a patchwork fix for schools, and that the state would be better off finding a more comprehensive solution to problems with school funding. Superintendent Stevenson did not buy that rationale.

“We need to look at the children in our schools right now and figure out how we can support them,” she said.

Victor Mitchell, a former Republican state lawmaker who opposed the ballot item, said its defeat reflected voters’ refusal to support new taxes for schools without accountability.

“There’s a tremendous anger and frustration among the electorate to keep [the government’s] hands off their pocketbooks,” said Mr. Mitchell, who chairs Save Colorado Jobs, a group that fought the proposition.

He said voters were unwilling to provide new tax money to schools “without any reforms attached to it.” Mr. Mitchell said the menu should include charter school expansion, private school vouchers, and performance-based teacher pay.

Widespread Cuts

Colorado is not alone in having made significant cuts to school budgets recently. At least 23 states reduced spending on either early education or K-12 schools during the current fiscal year, according to the Center on Budget and Policy Priorities, a Washington organization that advocates for low- and middle-income Americans.

Colorado voters last week turned down a ballot item that would have boosted taxes to raise revenue for education.

In 2010, Republicans seized control of a majority of governors’ offices and captured their greatest number of state legislative seats since the Great Depression. Many of the victors had pledged to drive down government spending, and upon taking office, did just that, arguing that voters should not be asked to make up for school districts’ shrunken state and local revenues with tax increases. Those policies made sense at the time, and they will resonate among voters next year, argued Mike Schrimpf, a spokesman for the Republican Governors Association.

“They want government to live within its means, even if that means having to do more with less,” he said in an email last week, “and the election results in Colorado this week are evidence of that.”

At the same time, the public has become more sympathetic to the idea that public schools are struggling, according to a Phi Delta Kappa International/Gallup poll released in August. Asked what they regarded as the “biggest problem” that public schools face, 36 percent of American voters responding said lack of financial support—by far the biggest factor cited—up from just 15 percent in 2001. A decade ago, Americans were as concerned about lack of discipline in public schools as they were about funding, the poll showed.

While many American families are “frightened and hurting” during this economy, they’re also increasingly aware of economic competition from abroad, and believe their children will need strong academic preparation to compete for future jobs, argued former Colorado Gov. Roy Romer, a Democrat. Voters are demanding “better results for the money” for schools, but they recognize the damage caused by K-12 cuts, and they will reject those reductions in 2012, he predicted.

“They’re smart enough to know that the only way to increase students’ employability is through increased skills and knowledge,” Mr. Romer said in an interview. When parents are coping with financial woes, “they’re looking at their kids and saying, ‘No matter how much pain we’ve got, it’s going to be worse for you’ ” without a solid education.

Personal Pain

One of the leading critics of school budget cuts is President Barack Obama, who says that his proposed $447 billion American Jobs Act would stave off hundreds of thousands of school layoffs and help repair dilapidated schools. In an Oct. 4 speech in Texas, the president cast his proposal, which has been resisted by congressional Republicans, as an economic imperative—a line of argument that could be used by other Democrats in 2012.

“This doesn’t just hurt these teachers,” Mr. Obama said. “It doesn’t just hurt them and their families. It hurts our children. It undermines our future as a nation. ... I want everybody to understand that what is at stake is nothing less than our ability to compete in this 21st-century economy.”

Budget cuts may seem “less abstract” to voters in state elections than in national contests, particularly when they learn of teacher layoffs and other painful sacrifices to schools, said Karlyn Bowman, a senior fellow at the American Enterprise Institute, in Washington, who studies public opinion. “Nobody thinks teachers are living high,” she said.

At the same time, she said, the depth of the recent economic downturn is likely to shape opinions toward government spending in unpredictable ways.

Mr. Carpenter of the University of Colorado at Colorado Springs agreed. He said he believes the public will grow more sympathetic to increased state spending on K-12 only when the economy improves substantially, “and people no longer face economic pain in their own families.”

That line of reasoning was evident during the Colorado debate, he said, when voters did not seem to have reached the point at which they said, “I can afford, in my own life, this government spending.”

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A version of this article appeared in the November 09, 2011 edition of Education Week as School Needs, Tax Aversion a Volatile Mix

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