GOP Takes War On Learning Into Senate Tax Plan, States

Jeff Bryant

As the Republican-controlled Congress continues to advance tax plans that slash funding from public education, a new report reveals how state and local government officials, especially where GOP leadership dominates, have continued a decade-long campaign to keep school funding below levels that preceded the Great Recession.

There’s little doubt that deep and persistent cuts to education take a toll on student learning opportunities and end the American Dream for millions of young people, especially those who are not white or who are at the bottom of the economic ladder.

Research studies often show a strong correlation between increased education spending and improved student achievement – finding, for instance, that states forced by court order to increase education spending consequently experienced gains in student achievement. And surveys show Americans are generally willing to pay higher taxes for education.

Yet efforts to cut education continue unabated at all levels of government, especially where Republicans have full control.

Taxing Schools Rather Than the Rich

The tax plan Senate Republicans are likely to pass this week has little to recommend over the House version.

The plan would double to $500 the $250 deduction teachers get for purchasing school supplies with their own money, rather than eliminate the deduction as the House version does. And while the House would eliminate deductions for student loan interest, college tuition and expenses, and tax breaks used by university employees and graduate students, the Senate proposal would preserve them.

But many other features of the Senate plan would deeply harm students and schools.

The biggest threats to local schools in both plans are their proposals to end federal deductions for state and local taxes (SALT) that households take when they itemize. The House plan limits the pain with a $10,000 ceiling, but the Senate plan does away with the deduction altogether.

Any reduction to the SALT federal subsidy will imperil the largest sources of school funding to education by eliminating the federal tax benefit to schools, discouraging new state and local tax initiatives to support schools, and pressuring state and local officials to cut local taxes to appease tax payers who can no longer deduct those taxes from their federal returns.

Another feature of the House bill that the Senate also proposes would increase how much schools pay for long-term debt by eliminating a tax exemption school districts get when they refinance their debts at lower interest rates using certain types of bonds.

According to Education Week, in the most recent year reported, districts carried $409 billion in long-term debt – a rate of $8,465 per student – and paid $17 billion in interest on those loans. Taking away any ability to write off some of that interest as a tax exemption would decrease money districts have to pay for teachers and student learning opportunities.

‘Punishing Decade for School Funding’

New GOP federal tax plans compound the harm state and local government leaders have done to public schools and students.

As a new report by the Center on Budget and Policy Priorities explains, for the latest year with data available, 29 states currently spend less money per student than they did in 2008. Although some of the 29 states cited by the report have increased education spending lately, the increases haven’t brought back spending levels to what they were nearly a decade ago.

The cuts to K-12 spending have “serious consequences,” CBPP authors contend, including crippling efforts to hire and retain the best teachers, reduce class sizes, expand learning time, and provide high-quality early childhood education.

Of the 10 states that have cut state and local education spending the most – Florida, Arizona, North Carolina, Nevada, Georgia, Idaho, Alabama, Oklahoma, Michigan, and Utah (in descending order from 25 percent to 8.6 percent) – all have had a Republican “trifecta” in charge, including a Republican governor and Republican majorities in both chambers of the state legislature.

Unfortunately, some states where the Democratic party dominates have cut education spending too, although nowhere near the levels of the above-mentioned states where the GOP rules. But another analysis has found Democratic governors have a much stronger tendency to increase school district funding, especially for districts with high proportions of Black and Hispanic students.

“Electing a Democratic governor led to an increase of about $500 per student for districts with a majority of black and Hispanic students,” Chalkbeat reports. “Similarly, the study finds that Democratic governors targeted additional money to colleges and universities that serve more students of color.”

Long-Term Harm

The Republican war on learning will have long term negative consequences to the nation.

While the House tax plan’s cut to SALT deductions would “put nearly 250,000 education jobs at risk,” according to analysts at the National Education Association, the Senate plan to end the deduction would plunge the dagger deeper, potentially leading to a loss of $370 billion in state and local tax revenue over 10 years, the NEA calculates, and endangering 370,000 education jobs.

Changes to higher-education tax benefits in the House tax plan “would cost students and families more than $71 billion over the next decade,” The Washington Post reports.

“Our country’s future depends heavily on the quality of its schools,” the authors of the CBPP study argue. The decade-long effort to cut K-12 school funding they chart “risk(s) undermining schools’ capacity to develop the intelligence and creativity of the next generation of workers and entrepreneurs.”

Perhaps, the whole strategy behind GOP tax plans and budget cuts boils down to a short-term need to cut education in order to offset the large cuts Republicans are providing to wealthy families and corporations.

But next year’s mid-term elections – in which a third of the Senate, 36 governors, and three quarters of states’ legislators are up for re-election – will give the rest of us a chance to speak up.

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