Arizona, North Carolina, Oklahoma and West Virginia are among the states that made the deepest cuts to education in the decade since the Great Recession. In 2018, however, lawmakers in these states boosted school funding. It’s no coincidence, according to a new paper issued by the Center on Budget and Policy Priorities (CBPP), that these improvements came soon after educators launched successful strikes to protest the chronic underfunding of their public schools.
“Protests by teachers and others helped drive substantial school funding increases over the last year,” writes Michael Leachman, Senior Director of State Fiscal Research at CBPP and co-author of the paper.
The funding gains were significant, especially in Oklahoma, where lawmakers increased formula funding per student by 19 percent, adjusting for inflation. Arizona, North Carolina, and West Virginia also saw significant gains, ranging from 3 percent to 9 percent per student, again after adjusting for inflation.
“Oklahoma became the poster child for the funding crisis that led to teacher walkouts in numerous states and cities,” said David Blatt, executive director for the Oklahoma Policy Institute, in a conference call on Tuesday with Leachman and reporters. “For the first time since 2013, we’re no longer No. 1 among states making the deepest cuts to education.” (That would be Texas, where funding per student is now 20 percent below 2008 levels.)
Whether it’s in Oklahoma, Arizona, West Virginia, or most recently in Oakland, CA., educators are hitting the picket lines to demand a reinvestment in public education, says NEA President Lily Eskelsen García.
“Educators all over the country are #RedforEd,” said Eskelsen García. While specific issues vary state to state, “there are some issues they all share: The concern that public education has been chronically underfunded in state and local budgets for decades, resulting in overcrowded classrooms, too few counselors and nurses, tattered textbooks held together by duct tape, broken computers and outdated materials, and buildings that have fallen into disrepair.”
Although the news is encouraging, the CPBB study makes it clear that states have a long way to go before they dig themselves out of the hole. Per-student formula funding in Arizona, North Carolina, Oklahoma and West Virginia is still well below pre-recession levels.
“While the funding hikes enacted in teacher-protest states last year allowed for teacher pay increases and other improvements, those gains may be reversed in coming years unless the states take additional steps to boost their school funding,” the report said. “Three of the four teacher-protest states that increased formula funding last year used revenue sources that may prove unsustainable, leaving them vulnerable to back-tracking in coming years.”
— OK Education Assoc. (@okea) March 7, 2019
For example, the #RedforEd protests in Arizona forced lawmakers to approve a budget granting significant salary increases for educators. What’s not clear is where the necessary revenue to finance this and other improvements is coming from. Furthermore, Oklahoma’s new education spending is being financed by cigarette and gasoline taxes – revenue streams that, according to CBPP, “typically fail to keep pace with state revenue needs over time.”
“Funding sources for these boosts are not stable enough,” concludes Leachman. “And thus far in 2019, leading policymakers in these states haven’t proposed new revenues for school investments.”
The funding crisis that has gripped these states is due in large part to the reckless tax-cutting policies that their governors and legislatures enacted over the past decade. Seven of the 12 states with the biggest cuts in school funding since 2008 ― Arizona, Idaho, Kansas, Michigan, Mississippi, North Carolina, and Oklahoma ― cut income tax rates in recent years, making it almost impossible to adequately public education.
In contrast, Minnesota in 2013 raised new revenue from high-income earners to generate almost $500 million in new education spending.
The deepest-cutting states – Arizona, North Carolina, and Oklahoma – “can reverse course on the tax cuts as part of a broader effort to improve their educational systems,” the CPBB report said.