Conservative States Starve Public Schools, Feed Rich With Tax Cuts

Emily Foster

A Center on Budget and Policy Priorities study released Thursday highlights significant cuts in public education spending since the Great Recession. The data in the report also shows a clear pattern: the states that have made the deepest cuts in public education are dominated by conservative lawmakers who have imposed an ideology of enriching the wealthy through tax breaks even as they starve public schools.

Out of the top 20 states that have cut per-pupil spending in inflation-adjusted terms since 2007, 13 have distinctly Republican legislatures, with five of those states becoming Republican-dominated between 2008 and 2012. Out of the top 10 states with the highest cuts, nine are distinctly Republican with Republican governors. (California is the exception.)

Even though revenues have improved in many of these states in recent years, cuts to education funding have continued to increase, according to the report.

Forty-eight states were analyzed; of those 34 are spending considerably less (in inflation-adjusted dollars) per student than they did before the recession hit. In addition, compared to last year, 15 states are giving less funding per student to local school districts in the new school year. In states where funding has increased, it has not increased enough to make up for cuts in past years. For example, New Mexico’s school funding is increasing by $72 per student this year, but the state has cut per-pupil spending by $946 since 2008.

States responded to the 2007-2009 recession by cutting funding for K-12 education when state revenues fell dangerously low. Although federal emergency fiscal aid prevented larger cuts, the aid ran out before most state economies fully recovered, and now these states have largely decided to address continuing budget shortcomings through spending cuts.

Unfortunately, local school districts have little ability to make up for absent state funding on their own. As a result, state-level funding cuts have led to teachers and other school personnel losing their jobs, larger classroom sizes, stagnated wages that inhibit the ability of districts to recruit better teachers, scaled-back expanded learning time, and reductions in high-quality pre-kindergarten and preschool programs.

But what states with Republican-dominated legislatures have found the wherewithal to do is to award tax cuts that benefit the wealthy and corporations. Oklahoma, the state with the most extensive cuts, has reduced per-student funding by more than 20 percent from pre-recession levels. Oklahoma’s past history of tax cuts have drastically affected its ability to provide funding for education: from 2004 through 2009, personal income tax was lowered by more than 20 percent. In May, Republican governor Mary Fallin signed Oklahoma House Bill 2032 into law, reducing the top income tax rate from 5.25 percent to 5 percent starting January 1, 2015, and also creating a mechanism that could reduce the rate to 4.85 percent in 2016. Fallin’s measure gives most of its benefits to the state’s wealthiest residents, with 40 percent of its tax cuts going to the wealthiest 5 percent of residents.

Oklahoma’s tax code already mainly benefits the wealthy, with the poorest Oklahomans paying 10.3 percent in income taxes, and the richest 1 percent just paying 4.6 percent.

Arizona, the state with the third deepest cuts, has reduced spending per pupil by more than 17 percent. In 2012, Governor Jan Brewer signed a bill into law that approved a 25 percent reduction on individual income tax paid on capital gains. Other parts of the bill allowed corporations to claim a bigger deduction from the property tax on business equipment and creating a new tax credit for investments in manufacturing plants, research facilities and corporate headquarters. The package’s tax provisions would cost an estimated $120 million in lost revenue when the main provisions take effect.

In addition, Arizona’s corporate income tax rate is set to fall by 30 percent from 2014 to 2017, which will end up saving big corporations over $270 million, leaving less money to fund necessary educational programs.

Idaho, listed as the state with the fifth most extensive education cuts, recently approved a $20 million tax cut to help offset the effect of partially repealing Idaho’s business personal property tax, which enables 90 percent of Idaho companies to be exempt from personal property tax on their business equipment and machinery. Its legislature also recently approved a tax change that will exempt wells drilled for gas and oil production in Idaho from property taxation. Last year, Idaho approved a $35 million tax cut for the state’s wealthiest earners.

Without adequate funding, K-12 education will continue to suffer due to Republican tax cuts benefiting corporations and the wealthy. State education budget cuts have slowed the pace of economic recovery: since July 2008, local school districts eliminated 324,000 jobs nationally. Without increasing per student spending, schools will continue to diminish in quality, weakening the future workforce and the economy – all because of conservative dogma that worships tax cuts for the wealthy few and disdains supporting for public education for the many.

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