State Governments Continue An Assault On Public Schools

Jeff Bryant

Nearly two years ago, a North Carolina classroom teacher wrote to her state legislature that her salary of $31,000 “is wholly insufficient to support my family. So insufficient, in fact, that my children qualify for and use Medicaid as their medical insurance, and since there is simply no way to deduct $600 per month from my meager take-home pay in order to include my husband on my health plan, he has gone uninsured. We work opposite shifts to eliminate childcare costs.

“Higher teacher pay may be unpopular,” she argued, “and I am aware it is difficult to see the connection between teacher pay and a quality education for students, so I will try to make it clear. Paying me a salary on which I can live means I can stay in the classroom, and keeping me in the classroom means thousands of students over the next decade would get a quality education from me. It’s that simple.”

Declaring she could “see no end in sight to the assault on teacher pay,” she concluded she might have to leave the profession. Although it isn’t clear what she ultimately decided – the blog where she posted her letter has not had an entry in over a year – she would find whatever kind of end she had in mind still nowhere near in sight.

A small salary increase passed by the state in 2014 gave experienced teachers like her little help. This year, the state has yet to make up its mind on how to support public schools, but the state senate is pushing to eliminate state-paid retiree health benefits for any new teachers hired into the system, and whichever new pay raises are passed, teachers in the Tarheel state will have to work 10 years before they see an annual salary of $40,000.

But what the North Carolina teacher calls “an assault on teacher pay” is actually an assault on public education budgets altogether, and it’s not limited to her state.

An Assault On School Children

In Philadelphia, schools are so poorly funded they’ve become “a health threat,” according to a report from The Philadelphia Enquirer. “In a sweep of Philadelphia public schools, investigators from the City Controller’s Office found a litany of health and safety threats.” Ninety-five percent of schools visited had water damage, and many bathrooms had cockroaches on floors, and toilets were fouled with waste. Seventy percent of the schools had electrical hazards, and 75 percent had fire hazards.

In New Jersey, there are similar dire situations in public schools. The Education Law Center has looked at under-funded school districts in that state and found broad, deep cuts to education programs for struggling students who need the most help.

In Egg Harbor Township, lack of funding has forced the district to cut 100 staff positions since 2009-10, increase class sizes, keep kindergarten classes at half-day only, and limit preschool to only 72 students, “a small fraction of the more than 900 students eligible.” The district has cut elementary world language and music, and elementary and middle school gifted and talented programs, and is no longer offering summer school for middle and high school students, or math and reading specialists to help middle school students who have fallen behind. Extracurricular activities such as middle school athletics, honors programs, and high school clubs are history. The few non-academic programs remain have “pay to play” fees that limit low-income kids from participating.

In another Jersey district, Elizabeth, the district no longer has the funds to give struggling students extended learning available from afterschool and summer school. “Elizabeth is a large, urban school district serving about 23,000 students. The student body is 90 percent black or Hispanic; 82 percent of students qualify for free or reduced price lunch, and 17 percent have limited English proficiency,” says an Education Law Center report.

In the Lindenwold district, according to the center, funding is so inadequate elementary and middle schools specialists – including art, music, and therapists – provide instruction from movable carts or in small spaces, such as media rooms or offices. “The elementary schools have no designated gymnasium, assembly, or cafeteria space; instead, each school has one multipurpose room suitable for only half the student body.”

Across the country in Nevada, as ELC reports again, a new analysis of that state’s education budget finds it “reduces most districts’ general operating budgets for the 2015-2016 school year.”

This means districts will have to “freeze teacher salaries, increase class size, and make painful cuts to teacher and support staffs, programs, and other essential resources,” including cuts to services for the state’s fast-growing segment of English language learners.

In Washington state, In These Times reports, “at least 30,000 teachers” in 65 school districts recently participated in a rolling strike across the state to protest “unacceptably high class sizes and low pay.”

Who’s To Blame

The culprits in this gross mismanagement of public education are the state legislatures and governors now in charge of public administration and policy leadership.

Despite some signs in the fall of 2014 that political leadership in this country might uphold school resources needs, “only a handful of states that cut money for education during the recession have increased it again during the economic recovery,” a recent report from McClatchy explains in June 2015. The article looks at analysis from a recent study, conducted by Rutgers professor Bruce Baker and the ELC, and found only four states – Illinois, Wyoming, Connecticut, and West Virginia – are spending more on education than they did before the recession in 2008. Fourteen states salt the wounds that lack of funding leaves on school children by providing less money to districts with higher concentrations of poor students. “Only 15 states spend more for students in high-poverty schools.”

Despite generally favorable, although modest, improvements in state revenue collections and budget growth – as reported by the National Association of State Budget Officers – political leaders in many states are struggling to pass budgets, often because funding education is the biggest impediment. As The New York Times reports, “While governments routinely wrestle with budgets, experts said the number of states with unfinished plans and the amount of discord over questions of tax level, pension policy and education spending were unusual.”

States where political party differences have created divided governments – such as Pennsylvania, Minnesota, and Illinois – have experienced feuds over spending levels on early childhood education and teacher pensions. But even in states with Republican governors and majorities in both legislative chambers – such as North Carolina and Wisconsin – “have found themselves mired in budget battles,” according to the Times.

As another report from the Times notes, the struggle to adequately fund education “is not simply a reflection of state economies still struggling to recover. Experts say politics and policy have also played a role.

“Of the seven states with the deepest cuts in education from kindergarten to 12th grade, six – Arizona, Idaho, Kansas, North Carolina, Oklahoma and Wisconsin – also cut income tax rates, leading to a series of vigorous protests and public disputes between lawmakers and educators that are still playing out.”

Some of the individual actions these state governments are taking are just atrocious.

Awful Things States Are Doing

As the above report from the Times explains, “Arizona in particular has been crippled by several years of targeted cuts at the state level and local voters’ repeated refusals to raise property taxes to offset these shortfalls.”

A school principal quoted in the article explains this means he has $68 for each of his 620 students over the school year to pay for “toilet paper and printing paper; athletic equipment and arts materials; and light bulbs, small repairs and cleaning materials.” Next year, he’ll have $52 per student. Another district has had to cut 170 positions since 2010, freeze teachers’ salaries, and delay replacing its aging buses, and clean out its rainy-day fund. Yet another district will be forced to “operate on a four-day week when the new school year starts in August, a system already in place in 41 of the 230 districts in the state.”

In Wisconsin, according to a knowledgeable source writing at The Washington Post blog site operated by Valerie Strauss, that state’s new budget “cuts $250 million from the University of Wisconsin system, holds overall K-12 funding flat in the first year with modest increases in the second (which, given inflation, means cuts). And while programs promoting privately run charters are expanded, the budget eliminates Chapter 220 – a metropolitan-wide program designed to reduce racial segregation in public schools and improve equal opportunity for students of color. The budget is also expanding the statewide voucher program, under which tax dollars are funneled into private, overwhelmingly religious schools.”

In New Jersey, “preschool-12th grade public school children will see no increase as the final budget enacts Governor Christie’s proposal for a seventh straight year of reduced or flat funding,” according to ELC. In the meantime, Governor Christie’s proposal ensures the transfer of an extra $37.5 million to charter schools from district budgets, and “the Governor maintained a new allocation of $5.75 million to pay for security in private and religious schools.”

In Iowa, according to The Des Moines Register, “Schools will not receive $55.7 million in additional funding that had been approved by the Legislature for the 2015-16 school year after Gov. Terry Branstad vetoed the line item from a budget bill.”

In Ohio, “Gov. John Kasich took a break from his presidential campaign to cut another $78 million from school districts by eliminating tangible personal property (TPP) tax reimbursement payments in the 2016-2017 school year,” according to Stephen Dyer, the education policy fellow at a state-based progressive advocacy group. Dyer added that the legislature also failed “to pass the first meaningful charter school reform bill since the program started, even though a majority of the Ohio House was willing to pass the much-improved bill that flew through the Ohio Senate unanimously. So the two-year-long, bipartisan effort to reform Ohio’s nationally ridiculed charter school system came up short, keeping this state’s national joke of a system in place.”

In Pennsylvania, newly elected Democratic governor Tom Wolf vetoed the Republican-backed budget it its entirety because, “it failed to adequately fund public education or provide property-tax relief to homeowners.”

In Washington state, budget passage has been stymied by lawmakers’ unwillingness to pass funding increases to meet class size reduction mandates voted on by the people. That state is chronically non-compliant with court-ordered funding levels for education.

There Are Alternatives

California continues to be a positive exception to the overwhelming inadequacy and inequity in state funding. As Politico reports, “California state lawmakers and Gov. Jerry Brown agreed on a budget … coming up with a $115 billion plan that includes $14.3 billion for K-12 schools and community colleges. It also includes $6 billion to continue implementing a funding formula that directs money to ‘students who face the greatest challenges,’ Brown’s office said.”

If California can do more to support public schools, certainly other states can too. Further, those states that fund schools more equitably can be held up as models for the rest of the nation, and federal authorities could pressure states to adhere to those examples in much the same way the U.S. Department of Education has succeeded in pressuring states to adopt all kinds of measures. The federal government could also do more to support the numerous lawsuits now being conducted against states to force them to uphold their constitutional duties to provide adequate funding for education.

To break political impasses, state lawmakers should consider proposals that reflect the entire repertoire of potential measures available to governing bodies. That repertoire is on display at the website of the Opportunity to Learn Campaign. OTL’s “toolkit” for raising education revenue features “23 different options within three,” including 14 personal income tax options (such as “Millionaire’s Taxes” and “Estate Tax” options, six business tax options aimed at reducing corporate tax avoidance or eliminating special business tax breaks, and three sales and excise tax options. [Disclosure, OTL is a partner organization with the Education Opportunity Network.]

Significantly boosting education spending – and the equity of that spending – now may be too late to save committed and experienced teachers like the one in North Carolina who asked to simply be paid a decent wage. But school children everywhere need political leaders to come through for their sake.

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