Public school finances are showing new signs of life

Since the American Federation of Teachers released a groundbreaking state-by-state report card on education funding, “A Decade of Neglect: Public Education Funding in the Aftermath of the Great Recession,” one year ago, there’s been some good news: The badly eroded finances of our nation’s public schools are improving.

Funding Our Future: A Progress Report on State PreK-12 Education Finance

In 2016, 25 states spent less on public K-12 education on a per-pupil basis, adjusted for inflation, than before the 2008 recession. Today’s analysis shows that in 2017, the number of states severely shortchanging kids had dropped to 21.

The culprits remain the same, however, with low-tax Republican states still guilty of the worst underfunding. For example, disinvestment has been a hallmark of Florida state budgets since the recession. And nowhere is spending further behind pre-recession levels than in Florida. Former Gov. Rick Scott liked to talk about how the tax cuts enacted under his watch were more than $10 billion.

A new 2019 edition of the report, “Funding Our Future: A Progress Report on State K-12 Education Finance,” updates portions of the earlier publication, detailing the harsh impact on students when states choose a path of tax breaks for ultra-wealthy individuals and corporations in the false belief that these tax cuts will pay for themselves. Instead, they starve public schools—where 90 percent of our children are educated—of the resources they desperately need.

A prime example is Wisconsin. Faced with a $3 billion budget shortfall in 2011, Gov. Scott Walker and the newly elected Republican Legislature cut the education budget by $1.85 billion. That same year, Walker signed the first in a series of tax cuts that have ultimately cost the state $4.7 billion. At the same time, lawmakers made steep cuts in state support for schools; they also enacted limits on the amount of money school districts could raise at the local level.

The newly updated report, together with a video, offer details on the historic disinvestment that sparked a wave of educator walkouts starting in West Virginia in spring 2018. 

The AFT’s new analysis highlights how:

  • AFT New Mexico helped elect Gov. Michelle Lujan Grisham. That in turn led to a legislative session that made substantial new investments in K-12 education, including funding for at-risk students and educator salaries.
  • In Texas, again in part because of AFT member activism, many anti-public education incumbents were defeated in 2018, leading to a 2019 budget with millions of dollars in new funding for schools.
  • In Florida, residents in 20 school districts voted to increase property taxes to provide resources for safer schools, improvements in teacher pay and other investments.
  • In Illinois, the election of Gov. J.B. Pritzker has provided the opportunity, via a 2020 ballot initiative, for Illinois voters to increase taxes on the richest to support public services.
  • In 2018, in states that suffered some of the deepest spending cuts—Arizona, Kentucky, Oklahoma, and West Virginia—teachers and support staff walked out of school to protest disinvestment.
  • Research from the Center on Budget and Policy Priorities shows that in every one of those states except for Kentucky, legislators responded by increasing funding for schools.
  • In 2019, United Teachers Los Angeles took to the streets to demand more for their students, winning class-size reductions; limits on testing; and access to school nurses, counselors and librarians.

Even as the recession undermined school finances, the report exposes how Republican legislators and governors prolonged the damage by cutting taxes for the rich at the expense of public schools. A majority of Americans instead support repealing tax cuts for the rich and using that money to invest in education, infrastructure and healthcare. And several 2020 presidential candidates are promising significantly more education funding at the federal level.

“The progress here may be incremental, but it matters,” says AFT President Randi Weingarten. “The investments made in 2017 are important, and the newer signs of progress we are seeing should lead to tangible, measurable impacts: more nurses and counselors in schools, increased special education resources, access to language, art and STEM classes with grade and subject-appropriate material, and higher wages.”

All this happened, Weingarten says, because educators galvanized communities to support public schools. Although we have a long way to go before ensuring that every student receives a high-quality education, the AFT president predicts growing support for investment in strong neighborhood public schools.

The first edition of the report was quickly followed by a resolution, passed by AFT convention delegates last July, calling on states and municipalities to turn data into action. “The Fight for Investment in Our Future and the Fight Against Austerity” pledges that the AFT “will … investigate legislative, policy and grass-roots solutions to increase investment in public services, including the identification of new revenue streams,” and “will work to channel the activism we are witnessing across the country in this moment into a movement for enduring change by electing pro-public education, pro-worker candidates.”

Indeed, our members have become frontline activists, speaking out against the myth—promulgated by ultrawealthy ultraconservatives like Education Secretary Betsy DeVos—that treating teachers as professionals somehow undercuts student success. Together through the union, our members are making it clear that reliance on overworked, under-resourced teachers is bad for kids. Our members are proving that their ability to organize is one of the best hopes for helping children learn and thrive.

 [Annette Licitra from AFT staff reports]