Last year’s teacher strikes, protests and walkouts have resulted in some increases in state education funding, but finance levels have not returned to pre-recession levels, according to a Center on Budget and Policy Priorities (CBPP) analysis released Wednesday.
Spending for K-12 schools has increased in Arizona, North Carolina, Oklahoma and West Virginia — four of the 12 states that saw deep budget cuts to education over the past decade, as well as statewide teacher protests in 2018. The increases range from a low of 3% in West Virginia and North Carolina to 9% in Arizona and 19% in Oklahoma.
However, in Kentucky — another state where teachers protested last year — funding has remained flat, dipping by less than 1%. And even in states where spending on schools has increased, lawmakers are turning to revenue sources that may not be sustainable, such as cigarette and gasoline taxes or cuts in other parts of the state budget.
“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,” Michael Leachman, senior director of state fiscal research at CBPP, and Eric Figueroa, a senior policy analyst, wrote in the report.
The researchers reviewed state budget documents, as well as U.S. Census Bureau data, on per-pupil funding at the state and local level.
They note that while spending has increased in four of the 12 “deep-cutting” states, funding has continued to decline in others, such as Texas, where the education finance formula has dropped 20% since 2008, after adjustments for inflation.
“These trends are very concerning for the nation’s future prospects,” Leachman said during a media call on Tuesday. “If we neglect our schools, we diminish our future.”
David Blatt, executive director of the Oklahoma Policy Institute — a nonpartisan think tank — described his state as being a “poster child” for the frustration teachers and others have felt about declines in state funding.
“Our cuts were almost twice as deep than any other state,” he said, noting that teachers went a decade without a raises, the state last year approved 2,000 emergency teacher certifications to fill vacancies and one-fifth of the state’s school districts dropped to a four-day school week to save money. He called the budget increase "a start, but only a start."
Leachman added that while CBPP did not analyze whether the cuts in funding have led to declines in student performance, the loss of full-day kindergarten in Arizona, for example, and increasing class sizes “are indicators that the research would suggest are likely to harm student outcomes.”
He highlighted Minnesota as an example of a state that has enacted funding policies in recent years that are likely to be more reliable — raising taxes for full-day kindergarten, providing scholarships for preschool and providing financial support for students from low-income homes to attend college. “Those investments are likely to pay off,” he said.
Teachers not giving up
Overall, education budgets have recovered from the recession in roughly half of states, Leachman said, adding that since 2016, when that milestone was reached, more states have likely joined that group.
But it’s clear from the protests that have already occurred this year, however, that teachers — including some who also walked out last year — are not letting up the pressure on state lawmakers to make educators and public schools a priority, especially “given the success and the recognition,” Leachman said. Support from “across [the] political spectrum” and from the business community “has emboldened teachers to continue to press for additional improvements given the years of neglect.”
This week, in fact, the American Federation of Teachers launched a Fund Our Future effort focused on all states in which education funding — for both K-12 and higher education — is still below pre-recession levels. According to the website, educators and other organizations “will be taking action to demand adequate and sustainable investment in our public schools, colleges and universities” throughout the rest of March.
In other words, the string of protests, rallies and walkouts is likely to end soon.
“This is a directed and specific [public relations] effort to build on what appears to be strong, maybe growing, pro-public school sentiment,” Julia Koppich, a California-based consultant and researcher. “How successful will it be? I’m not sure. I can’t really see a downside, though.”
In February, West Virginia educators held a two-day walkout over legislation that would have created the state's first charter schools and established education savings accounts. Only a few hours into their protests, state legislators effectively killed the bill.
And in Kentucky, where teachers held a one-day walkout last year to protest changes in the teacher pension system, the same issue has resurfaced, with teachers holding “sickouts” to show opposition over plans to alter how members are chosen for the Kentucky Teachers Retirement System's board of trustees.
Even in districts that have experienced strikes, including the Los Angeles Unified School District and the Oakland Unified School District in California, management and labor have joined together to direct their frustration toward those at the state level who are making decisions on how schools are funded. Despite California’s wealth, per-pupil funding “is on the low end” compared to other states, Leachman said.
Koppich added that because California is a collective bargaining state, teachers have directed their demands toward their districts. “But wrapped around these demands,” she said, “was a consensual agreement from labor and management that the state has to up funding for schools.”