Starved School Budgets Across the US: A Symptom of Education Funding Crisis

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Yves here. Leaders in Washington are increasingly prescribing “Let them eat education” as the solution to inequality and stagnant incomes. They might try looking outside the Beltway to see that public school budgets in many part of the US are being slashed.

By Jeff Bryant, director of the Education Opportunity Network, a partnership effort of the Institute for America’s Future and the Opportunity to Learn Campaign. He has written extensively about public education policy. Originally published at Education Opportunity Network

This week’s disturbing news that Oklahoma schools are so poorly funded some of them may move from five days a week to four got a lot of people’s attention, including my colleague Richard Eskow, who called this an example of “the Republican party’s sickness of the soul.” Unfortunately, the illness is highly contagious.

The contagion stems from revenue shortfalls in states that counted on money that never materialized – at least 29 states, according to Education Week. Although unemployment rates have generally declined in these states, and economies have improved since the Great Recession, lawmakers in many of these states also decided to enact tax cuts and to do nothing about stagnating wages, so income tax and sales tax revenues flattened or even dipped.

Governors in these states say education finance is a priority – at least according to an annual survey of them. The poll, conducted by the Education Commission of the States, asked 42 governors about their education-related priorities. School finance was at the top, with 32 wanting to improve K-12 education through funding. But obviously, these state leaders forgot the revenue side of the equation. Oops!

State lawmakers’ inability to do basic arithmetic is having painful impacts on schools, teachers, and children.

Oklahoma is indeed the poster child for the negative consequences. “Funding for classrooms has been shrinking for years,” reports the Washington Post, “slicing away hundreds of millions of dollars in annual revenue.” The shift to four-day weeks is not the only consequence of the financial crisis. Art and music programs have been cut, teachers are getting laid off, and those teachers who are left are the worst paid in the nation.

But Oklahoma is just an extreme point on a long continuum of bad.

Somewhere else on that continuum lies North Carolina, where lawmakers passed legislation to lower class sizes in the early grades – arguably a good thing – but then failed to provide schools funding to hire more teachers necessary to meet the new class size mandates. The resulting financial car wreck in schools endangers the jobs of art and music teachers and physical education instructors and nurses, counselors, special education teachers, and other support staff.

Years of financial backsliding in The Tar Heel state has reduced local school budgets to skin and bones, according to local school officials, but many state lawmakers continue to talk about cutting taxes.

A potential solution is mired in North Carolina’s General Assembly while some lawmakers contend, astonishingly, that educators are somehow cased this fiasco.

State lawmakers in Kansas have, for years, addressed repeated budget shortfalls with tax cuts that have lead to yet more budget shortfalls. (Why does anyone find this surprising?) Many schools ran out of money and had to close early. In other districts, class sizes ballooned, art and science programs disappeared, and parents had to pay fees for their children to play sports

In Ohio, Republican Governor John Kasich recently submitted a budget that would cut funding to two-thirds of the state’s districts. The governor’s cuts are the result of failures to acknowledge inflation in his calculations and a proposed new funding formula that would hurt districts with enrollment declines, cap funding increases in local districts, and decrease state aid for transportation. Oh, and there’s $2 billion more for charter schools.

“This is every superintendent’s worst nightmare,” says a district school leader, who announced the budget would necessitate firing 24 teachers and raising fees for kids to participate in school activities such as band, sports, and technology. A letter to the editor of a local Ohio newspaper notes the cuts to transportation would be particularly devastating to rural school districts. The transportation cuts come on top of previous in 2009 that used to help school districts purchase newer and more fuel-efficient school buses. Those funds were diverted to charter schools.

In New York, Democratic Governor Andrew Cuomo has for years resisted releasing $4.3 billion in “Foundation Aid” a court ruled are due to the schools based on legislation passed in 2007. Cuomo froze the funding increases in 2009.

In an op-ed for a Lower Hudson newspaper, actress Cynthia Nixon describes the difference the additional funding made for her child: “More teachers and aides providing individualized attention, enrichment like art and chess, a richer learning environment … But short-lived, thanks to Gov. Cuomo.”

The New York Times reports that In New Jersey, “hundreds of towns,” especially those whose student populations are nonwhite and lower-income, “have not gotten their full share of funding” they are due, based on a school formula passed in 2008. The article points to a Jersey district that that was due $23 million, based on the original formula, but only got $9 million. As a consequence of the shortfall, one school has had to pack over 500 students into a single classroom.

Local school leaders in the Garden State complain their schools are “literally crumbling,” funding for their pre-k programs have been “flat lined” for five years, and districts have chronic shortages of nurses, guidance counselors, art teachers, custodians, and social workers.

In Illinois, 17 school districts are suing the state, the governor, and his board of education for failing to fund public education in accord with the state constitution.

In Arizona, funding is so bad – the state is 48th in the nation in per-pupil funding – over 2,100 classrooms don’t have a teacher and another 2,200 are led by uncertified staff.

The list of state negligence to education funding goes on and on. But the problems are nationwide

The American Society of Civil Engineers gives our public schools a grade of D-plus on its report card on school infrastructure. Over half of our schools need repairs, renovations, or upgrades just to be in “good” condition.

Over 72,000 teachers have created GoFundMe campaigns on the internet to raise funds for classroom supplies their districts can’t pay for. Teachers already shell out $530 a year, on average, of their own money on classroom items, including food and clothing for students. In high-poverty schools, that figure jumps to $672.

Research consistently shows there is a direct correlation between what we spend on schools to how well our students perform on achievement tests and other measures. In states that were forced by court order to increase education spending, research shows students experienced gains in student achievement.

Surveys show Americans are generally willing to pay higher taxes to for education, especially if the money is used to pay teachers more and improve facilities and technology.

Yet, political leaders continue to slash taxes instead and redirect more funds to unfounded experiments like charter schools and voucher programs.

It’s time to stop treating the symptoms of this disease and go directly to the cause. Vote these idiots out of office.

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  1. visitor

    “People are our most valuable asset”.

    “A well-educated population is the condition for success in the knowledge economy”.

    “Education is the solution to the incoming robotic revolution”.

    “Leave no child behind”.

    1. DanB

      Somehow Putin’s is behind this. I think my hunch is enough to justify an investigation!

  2. Stelios Theoharidis

    Its pretty simple, conservatives are trying to cripple the teachers unions. They are one of the last remnants of union jobs and an extant organizational threat. Its consistent with their game plan, even if they have to punish children to do it. If you are conservative true believer you don’t want your kids in public schools anyway, you don’t want them inculcated with liberal ideas in science, history, politics, arts, etc.

    I think the interesting aspect of this, is that dumbing down the American populace gives more merit to corporate expansion of professional visas to undercut workers. Medical care professionals being a extremely problematic situation where we are both undertraining medical professionals here while importing medical professionals from all over the world to undercut their wages, while destroying the prospects for health system development throughout the countries that are experiencing massive health professional brain drain.

    I think education advocates should get on the marijuana legalization and taxation train, especially if you dedicate the revenue stream and prison cost reductions to the school system. Its no respite for the folks that have had their lives ruined through the drug war, but at least it will commit funding to the school systems and probably somewhat abate the Opioid crisis. Otherwise once lots of fentanyl starts hitting the streets we are going to have a perfect storm. Good legislation could probably concentrate that funding towards the poorest performing school districts that need it the most. If enough liberal states make that move it will make it difficult for conservative states to maintain prohibition or ignore the revenue stream.

    The drain on state and municipal revenues that the prison system and police represent is nothing to balk at. Sure they are a formidable lobby. But, I’d rather be spending 50K a year on a new teacher than locking up non-violent offenders in overcrowded prisons to teach them how to be career criminals or having cops running around harassing people with poor taxes to pay for their cruiser equipment.

    1. Clive

      As if that wasn’t all horrid — and correct — enough, I also would suggest that there’s another unsavoury angle: teachers are, as a class (social-economic group) fairly liberal leaning. You don’t tend to go into public school system teaching if your a ruthless capitalist.

      So it isn’t just a war on the working poor and their families, trapping them in reduced life chances through crapified education. It is symptomatic of a pathological hatred of anyone who dares to go into a profession which is a “drain on the public purse”.

      See, all you bad, baaad, educators who have temerity to look to the state for your livelihood, u r doin’ it wrong. You should be working for a charter school or some fee paying establishment. Then you might have a class size under 40.

      1. jackiebass

        I don’t think you can verify what you say with valid research. I’m a retired teacher with 35 years service. In some areas of the country , what you say about teachers being liberal might be correct. If you get out of the big cities , just the opposite is true. Teachers are mostley conservative. There are single exceptions but in general what I say is true.
        Also what you say about charter isn’t true. Charters are generally run as a business so it’s teachers are disposable. In fact charters don’t want career teachers.
        The starve the beast to make it fail is being used as a weapon to destroy public education. The end goal is to privatize public education to get all of the money involved. It’s a good example of neoliberal economics at work that has been dominate since the 70’s. An extreme form of the transfer of wealth from the have nots to the haves.

        1. Clive

          I think it’s correct to say that within the profession, there is a spectrum of individual leanings, either conservative, liberal or centrist.

          The point I was aiming at was, if someone goes into teaching because they view it as a calling, as opposed to a vocation, they’d not likely be chasing after every dollar. If they had that mindset, there’s better paying work, considering the training and qualifications overheads, than teaching.

          Charters don’t want that kind of teacher, as you say. They want the “it’s just a job” crowd.

          Public schools now seem to want the same as well, but there is where the fault line is — no-one goes into public service for the money. Unless they can see a looting opportunity they can get a piece of.

          1. jrs

            I could easily see people going into it for basically conservative reasons. It seems conservatives believe more in the sexual division of labor, whereas liberals are more feminist (yea Hillary Clinton trying to break that glass ceiling).

            So in the conservative worldview females aren’t necessarily SUPPOSED to maximize income, but males are. And teaching is traditionally female. So while the conservative worldview is ruthless, it actually expects less of females in terms of success in the marketplace (they should just find a good breadwinner) than do identity politics feminism. Now it doesn’t mean conservatives are going to support any sort of government help for women or anything, they should have just married a good breadwinner in their view (and that really is their view).

            My teachers in Cali were definitely liberal, but not left.

            1. Left in Wisconsin

              Scott Walker’s wife, Tonette, is (was) a public school teacher. So there is that.

              My teachers in Cali were definitely liberal, but not left.

              Here in Madison, I would say the same: mostly liberal. A few, not too many, are left-ish. A few are conservative. I don’t think it is all geography/sorting. Madison teachers have a very good union – progressive and effective, even post-2011 when their collective bargaining rights were decimated (they now help jointly write the district’s “employment manual” and they have strong support on the school board, which drives the right-wingers that control state govt nuts). So the teachers know the value of a good union. On the other hand, they are certainly willing to push for higher taxes at all times, and do not (jointly) show much sympathy for those struggling with high property taxes or low incomes.

              I know a few teachers out-state but not many. What was really revealing in 2011 was the lack of support out-state teachers received from their local communities. While teaching used to be low-paid compared to private-sector work, because the private economy has collapsed in many places, the teachers are now among the best paid workers in many towns, with health insurance and pensions to boot! What grifters!

              Speaking of which, the article could do a better job trying to connect the dots. Funding has been slashed in many states but most residents in those states have not experienced substantial tax cuts, or tax cuts that would offset the income loss they have seen. The brilliance of divide and conquer has been to pit ordinary tax-payers against ordinary public employees, with the 1% (who either don’t use public schools or live in areas with good schools and strong property tax bases) laugh all the way to the bank (that they own).

      2. Enrico Malatesta

        I find that the “liberal vs. conservative” battle is mostly a cover for class warfare. But what may be the most unsavory angle is that most who decide to be public school teachers are not sociopaths, and most who get to influence school funding are.

    2. Carolinian

      Happy to be corrected but I seriously doubt teacher’s unions are much of a factor in most of the states mentioned. It probably has more to do with upper class and corporate dislike of property taxes which are what fund schools in most localities. As for

      Medical care professionals being a extremely problematic situation where we are both undertraining medical professionals here while importing medical professionals from all over the world to undercut their wages

      you should take that up with Dean Baker who says restrictions on medical licensing (foreign doctors have to do their residency in the US) are one source of our high medical costs. In Britain they are worried that the NHS will lose many doctors due to Brexit because so many of them are from abroad.

      1. justanotherprogressive

        Teachers unions are pretty much dead, and if not dead, then impotent. I can’t see how they could be a factor in anything the states do any more. Yes, it is property taxes and the fact that people have forgotten how educating “other people’s children” will actually help THEM in the future….and the greedy “education for profit” people are just sitting by watching, knowing that this means big bucks for them ….

      2. NotTimothyGeithner

        This is shocking, but people do like schools believe it or not. Schools have in many ways been protected from the budget cuts of recent years. In recent years due to the glorious economy, states haven’t had money for pet projects and have cut to the bones on many other projects. Sports stadiums which were once rubber stamped are being rejected or not discussed.

        Teachers unions are captured by the Democratic Party. Their strongest power is they can provide Democratic candidates early funding and manpower, but the political environment means a pre-education Republican can’t exist or if one does the Teachers unions can’t support that candidate because of how legislative assemblies actually work. My old neighbor, growing up, was a Republican state legislator and the teachers unions didn’t do much for his opponents when he had them. They moved heaven and earth when he didn’t run again. Against my old neighbor, the teachers couldn’t support him, but he was a reliable vote.

        Property taxes are an atrocious way to fund schools.

        1. Carolinian

          I agree re property taxes (Michael Hudson favors them for other reasons) but sales taxes are even more regressive and some states don’t even have income taxes.

          Bottom line: it’s all about the taxes.

        2. Dirk77

          Second Carolinian. There are worse ways to fund schools than property taxes. Ask California. If you can find a better tax on wealth I’d like to hear it.

      3. Stelios Theoharidis

        You guys aren’t thinking strategically, in terms of winning the political game. That is all this has become to conservatives, their objective is to win the game, it doesn’t matter how they do it. In that they have been effective at dismantling the competitive infrastructure of their opponents.

        I don’t actually disagree with the property tax issues as a source of social resentment. Some people can’t do the basic math to determine the lifetime costs of educating their children. That is a separate issue.

        However, the demolition of teachers unions has a lot to do with the fact that they are the 2nd and 5th largest political contributor to liberal causes. In fact if you put the two largest teachers unions together, the American Federation of Teachers and National Education Association, they would be the largest contributor to liberal causes (still beneath the top conservative contributors).

        Please be an adult and try to do a healthy amount of research before stating things that you are ‘certain’ about, like the ‘impotence’ of teachers unions.

        1. Stelios Theoharidis

          Sorry I made a mistake there, Tom Steyer, being the largest contributor to the left, Teachers Unions would be second after him.

          I don’t think conservatives have an actual problem with high net worth individuals warping our political landscape. As they are their primary benefactors.

          Unions on the other hand, they have an avenue to dismantle both their political force and their political financial contributions.

    3. ScottB

      Oregon has legalized and taxed marijuana. The revenue stream is in the tens of millions. The state’s Quality Education Model shows that we are a Billion short of where we need to be to offer a basic quality education. Marijuana is no panacea for education funding. And the reduction in prison costs is far less than other pressures like rising Medicaid costs associated with the ACA.

      A better solution is single payer, with the savings repurposed to education and infrastructure (I can dream, can’t I?).

  3. SeanL

    at the heart of America politics is a belief in Social Darwinism (both Republicans & Vichy Democrats) where dog-eat-dog competition will always allow those of ‘ability’ to rise. Yet all that happens is allow the rise of sociopaths who by their very nature eventually turn on themselves. At which point society goes kaput.

    What is being done in education is just a reflection of some corporates. We all know what happened to Lehmans which extolled the virtues of dog-eat-dog competition.

    1. sierra7

      “at the heart of America politics is a belief in Social Darwinism (both Republicans & Vichy Democrats) where dog-eat-dog competition will always allow those of ‘ability’ to rise. Yet all that happens is allow the rise of sociopaths who by their very nature eventually turn on themselves. At which point society goes kaput.”
      Bingo! And, we are rapidly approaching the point of, “kaput”…….

  4. russell1200

    North Carolina does not have teacher’s unions, or for that matter public service unions. Teachers, at least in North Carolina, seem to reflect the politics of their local communities so are – at least culturally – rather conservative.

    At least in North Carolina, I agree with the idea that the cuts are coming from the desire to cut taxes. North Carolina is a Legislative driven State Government. It can get particularly sticky when the legislature and one of the many heads of states (directly elected administrative positions are numerous) are not of the same party.

  5. Jim A.

    Under fund public education, then divert money to charter schools to assist the well off in abandoning public the public schools. Just part of the “free market” extremists playbook. Of course in some areas this dates back to Brown vs. Board of Education. In response to the desegregation of public schools, many whites in the South pulled their kids out of public schools and there was a flowering of private schools to hold the children of middle class whites. So public schools in those areas are mostly filled with the poor and the brown, and horribly under funded as a result.

  6. flora

    The Red Scare in the 1950’s spurred increased education spending in both K-12 and higher ed. The US realized it needed more engineers, scientists, etc. I know the current “Red Scare” is fake because there is no increased spending for educaton or anything to act as a counter to the “Russian Menace.” It’s all theatre.

    1. a different chris

      Interesting. A time of peace, if you can mislead the people to not realize it, is obviously the safest time for your average Elite Idiots to hijack a country. If there was a real threat they wouldn’t be able to handle it. The Civil War started out with its fair share of Petrauses and McChrystals until Lincoln realized they were actually going to lose the thing.

      There was a funny spot on the old “Connections” teevee show demonstrating the peasants for once having just a helluva time. They had suddenly found themselves in the driver’s seat after one or several plagues decimated their numbers – which I’m sure was no fun – and it had become obvious that the Elite could barely wipe their own butts, let alone feed and house themselves.

      One very specific example given was how the English longbows had destroyed the French knights, but 100 years later you couldn’t interest anybody in learning how to draw a bow. Nobody wants to kill anybody who isn’t bothering them personally.

      Eventually I guess they bred themselves back into misery and subjugation. Now we are swamped under so much information we didn’t even realize that we could have had a new Age Of The Peasants.

      1. Mel

        I just ran across Aldous Huxley’s Brave New World Revisited where, in 1958, he revised the ideas presented in his 1931 novel. His later thoughts are about propaganda and messaging. By 1958 psychologists had found that people under stress are more suggestible and more prone to taking on ideas that get presented to them. (Stress could be as little as being sleepy, which was why the desirable TV advertising slots were in the evening.)
        For best propaganda you want fear of war, the stronger the better, but not past the point where your subjects are blown up by the evidence.
        I’m not sure how strong propaganda in total will wind up being. Cambridge Analytica is down the end of that road somewhere.

    2. NotTimothyGeithner

      The first Red Scare was fake too. Bob Taft told Truman to “scare the hell out of Americans” to lass the Marshall Plan when Bob, one of those moderate Republicans of yesteryear like Bill Buckley (sarc), wasn’t
      denouncing the Dems as Bolsheviks.

      Kennedy made up the “missile gap.”

      1. Arizona Slim

        Indeed he did. The actual missile gap statistics showed that the US was winning by several touchdowns.

  7. a different chris

    >I think education advocates should get on the marijuana legalization and taxation train

    Maybe. Certainly Colorado education is experiencing just the opposite of the travails listed above. My only problem is not the weed part at all, it’s the payment for kid’s education having special connection to a particular commercial product.

    Imagine if breast cancer treatment was free, but only because it was paid for in fracking dollars. We would never be able to stop them anywhere.

    So general revenues should for sure get on said train, but specific targeting… again the frackers and equally unsavory types would be all over that.

  8. drb48

    Yves – “Vote these idiots out of office.”

    It’s not just the idiots IN office that are the problem, it’s the idiots that put them there. And THEY can’t be voted out. Worse, the defunding of public education just creates more idiots – in a self-reinforcing cycle. Which seems to be the intent.

    1. Yves Smith Post author

      That wasn’t my quote, it was Jeff Bryant. But you underestimate the impact of decades of think tank messaging against government and in favor of failed experiments like tax cuts as growth generators. This isn’t stupid voters, this is voters being fed informational swill for long periods of time.

      1. drb48

        Sorry for the misquote. But I think that it IS stupid voters. Yes they’ve been fed misinformation – as have the rest of us. The difference is that they’ve chosen to believe it. Because they want to. I can’t tell you the number of times I’ve received some complete BS post from the right-wing echo chamber, reflexively forwarded to me by one of my conservative relatives, which didn’t pass the smell test and could be debunked in less than a minute by going to Snopes or just googling it. Yet their faulty (or non-existent) BS meters never went off. Because critical thinking is not a skill they posses.

  9. justanotherprogressive

    Oklahoma schools…..
    I have family in Oklahoma (but not for long….). One of the odd things about Oklahomans is that they see nothing wrong with their school system and can’t figure out why others think it is so bad. Only those who come from other areas in the country who see what that school system is like think it is horrible. My family members in OK are leaving this year because they had to make the decision to either home school or put their children into private schools. They finally decided that finding jobs elsewhere made more sense….

  10. oldnathan

    One of the macro trends that I’ve never seen correctly investigated is the increased cost of education caused by IDEA. (Individuals with Disabilities Education Act).

    At the micro level I’ve seen it pull a lot of resources that would have gone into the majority of the student body, put into a small percentage of students to enable them to be mainstreamed.

    At the absurd level you find wealthy parents who use the system to get the local school system to pay for their child to go to an extremely expensive private school.

  11. Adam Eran

    I’d suggest one other motivation not mentioned in comments. Warren Buffett says gambling is a “tax on ignorance.” What better way to promote a casino president than to spread the ignorance far and wide?

  12. Kim Kaufman

    In addition to more charters and less unions, another goal of this is on-line “teaching.” Eliminate teachers and schools altogether. Ka-ching!

    And it’s not just Republicans in on this con, it’s also Dems.

  13. Brian

    I like a good scary story as much as the next person on the internet, but you know what I like even more? Data. In this case, it would be very helpful to see the dollars per student per year and how that has changed over time. Yes, I know that doesn’t tell the whole story, but if we’re going to be using terms like “slashed” and “contagion” shouldn’t we at least try to back it up?

  14. Carla

    “Vote these idiots out of office.” For what? To vote in more idiots? With a duopolistic political system we can only have idiots, because that’s what the system creates: our 2 political parties are two sides of the same coin. Doesn’t matter who comes up “heads” in the coin toss. All they’ll do is blame the other party — it’s THEIR fault!

    We have a systemic problem. Therefore, we’re going to have to change the system. Changing the puppets won’t do a damned thing.

  15. sierra7

    Once the idea of “globalization” sunk in what did anyone expect even with our public education system?
    Observing in the 1950’s thru the present (and even prior to the 1930’s) it was not too hard to foresee what was being planned for here in the US by our actions in other countries where we were brutally repressing any social progressives and relied on installed and backed totalitarian governments tied to the upper class elites. I always said to my co-workers and co-unionists that to pay attention because what we were doing and had done will soon be visited here in our own country.
    The majority of Americans have been living behind a curtain of glossy “dreams”…..which by now, most should realize are just nightmares.
    If and when any society measures it’s “progress” by the “bottom line” then it is finished. Kaput. And, we are getting very, very close.

  16. Heraclitus

    One hears various things about education spending and results. The Wikipedia entry on the SAT indicates that the biggest decline in SAT scores was between the ’50s and the ’70s. Scores have been mostly flat since then. That decline occurred at the same time that the number of test takers doubled, but analyses have indicated that this demographic factor accounts for only 25% to 40% of the decline. It is alleged that the re-centering of scores in the ’90s was done to obscure declines, particularly in verbal scores, because international comparisons had become embarrassing for the US.

    What’s odd is that these declines have occurred in an environment where students have been spending more and more time in school, and more and more time studying academic subjects. You’d think that all this study–which is an expensive thing to provide, as we call tell from our property tax bills–would produce great achievement as measured on exams. That has not happened. Some people think the reason teenagers aren’t in the work forces in the numbers they used to be is because they are studying so much more.

    The Federal component of school funding is small. However, it has increased by almost 400% in real terms over forty years. Politifact rates Rep. Brat’s comment below as ‘mostly true.’

    It appears to me that the high schools see themselves in competition with the colleges. Thus many efforts are duplicated. In our local high school, which is well funded, students have ‘majors’.

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