WASHINGTON—The American Federation of Teachers has issued an update to its education funding report card today detailing some progress that states have made in public school finance. “Funding Our Future: A Progress Report on State K-12 Education Finance” updates portions of the union’s 2018 report, “A Decade of Neglect: Public Education Funding in the Aftermath of the Great Recession,” and shows incremental improvements in state education spending. It also shines a light on the consequences for states that continue to shirk their responsibility to adequately fund public education.
The report provides further evidence that chronic disinvestment—which has led to reduced student math and English achievement, lack of teacher retention, and reduced graduation rates —was largely the result of governors and state legislators pursuing austerity agendas that favored tax cuts for the rich at the expense of our nation’s schools, and begins to outline some data to suggest that the rallying cry over the past year from communities, parents and educators to fund the future for students has begun to pay off.
The 2019 edition uses updated census data from 2016 and 2017 to look at how education funding has changed across the states. While the initial report indicated that 25 states spent less on public education than they did before the recession, 2017 data shows that number has been reduced to 21. Kentucky, Oregon, South Dakota and Tennessee are now spending more than they did before the recession, after adjusting for inflation.
The report also provides a snapshot of what’s continuing to happen, and indicates that the wave of educator activism and the 2018 midterm elections are signs of a larger shift toward increased support of the public schools, which 90 percent of American kids attend. It highlights several states where the teacher walkouts, political activism and teacher-led Fund Our Future campaigns have resulted in new investments:
- The efforts of teachers, parents and communities in 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 teacher salaries.
- In Texas, again in part a result of AFT member activism, many anti-public education incumbents were defeated during the 2018 elections leading in 2019 to a budget with millions of dollars in new funding for schools.
- In Florida, voters in 20 school districts voted to increase property taxes to provide resources for safer schools, improvements in teacher pay, and other education investments.
- In Illinois, the election of Gov. J.B. Pritzker has provided an opportunity for Illinois voters to increase taxes on the richest in order to support education and other services via an initiative that will be on the ballot in 2020.
- Last year, in states that had experienced some of the deepest spending cuts since the recession—Arizona, Kentucky, Oklahoma and West Virginia—teachers went on strike to protest disinvestment. Although we don’t yet have complete data on how state spending has improved in these states since those strikes, in all but Kentucky, legislators have responded by increasing state funding for schools.
- In 2019, we saw teachers in Los Angeles take to the streets to demand more for their students, and win class-size reduction; limits on testing; and access to nurses, counselors and librarians.
AFT President Randi Weingarten, who noted some of the data in her keynote address at the union’s biennial TEACH conference, hopes the data continues to improve:
“The progress here may be incremental, but we’ve reached an inflection point. We are seeing 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 for teachers,” Weingarten said.
“But it didn’t happen in a vacuum. It happened because educators spoke out, and galvanized communities to support public schools—in the streets and at the ballot box. Slowly but surely, state legislatures are realizing that underfunding public schools is far too risky a bet. But we still have a long way to go before we ensure every kid in this country gets an education regardless of geography, demography or ability. That’s what the AFT Fund Our Future initiative is all about: building a movement for sustainable investment in the public schools parents want, and kids need.”
The research also shows how the states with the worst disinvestment have generally prioritized lower taxes for the richest over adequate funding for schools, and it suggests several tax proposals focused on asking the top earners to pay their fair share to start to undo the damage of the recession and build the schools and communities we need. The report recommends that state lawmakers pursue progressive revenue reform to adequately invest in our nation’s schools and tackle growing inequality so states could at least close the $14.4 billion funding gap needed to bring their education spending up to pre-recession levels. Several of the 2020 Democratic presidential candidates have proposals that would similarly raise revenue at the federal level.
The report concludes that while the initial improvements are encouraging, even the states doing “better” are still failing to spend what is needed for all of their students to achieve academic success, with nearly every state still spending inadequately to meet the education needs of children in the highest-poverty districts.
 C. Kirabo Jackson, Cora Wigger and Heyu Xiong. January 2018. “Do School Spending Cuts Matter? Evidence from the Great Recession.” National Bureau of Economic Research.
 Michael Leachman and Eric Figueroa. March 2019. “K-12 School Funding Up in Most 2018 Teacher-Protest States, But Still Well Below Decade Ago.”