By Amanda Litvinov
The fiscal picture in most states is markedly brighter, with some states projecting record budget surpluses. And yet K-12 funding in at least 34 states is still lower than before the recession started seven years ago, according to a report from the nonpartisan Center on Budget and Policy Priorities.
Elected leaders talk about helping students achieve their dreams of college and careers, but chronic underfunding of public schools–which rely on state dollars for nearly half of their funding, on average–has a direct negative affect on students. More than 363,000 K-12 education jobs were cut between 2008 and 2012, leaving students stuck in larger classes with fewer educators, classroom aids and other school personnel to help them meet academic challenges and mature as individuals.
Now is the time for governors and state legislators to make it a priority to revitalize their public school systems, whose funds they justified hacking when the fiscal picture was much bleaker. The benefits to students are obvious, with smaller class sizes and more learning supports. But it’s also great for state and local economies; a dollar-for-dollar investment in education increases private income and jobs more than any other sector of the economy according to research by the National Education Association.
But too many states are still headed in the wrong direction. Here are just a few examples:
During his first three years in office, Gov. Snyder signed off on a whopping $1.8 billion tax cut that benefited the state’s wealthiest individuals and corporate interests at the expense of public schools. Students crammed into overcrowded classrooms and educators reached into their own pockets to provide basic supplies their districts could no longer afford. One district was even forced to temporarily shutter its doors, while others suffered such financial mismanagement they were subject to state takeover. Snyder, who is expected to seek another four-year term, did mention expanding pre-K education in his state of the state address, but made no other pledges to public education. Rather, he used the platform to argue that his policies—including a “right-to-work” law that disempowers that state’s workers—have ushered in an economic comeback. The reality is that the state suffers one of the highest unemployment rates in the nation and educators have lost the ability to bargain for better learning conditions for students. Stay tuned for Snyder’s formal budget proposal, expected on Feb. 5.
Recent projections put Wisconsin’s budget surplus at $1 billion, but it’s no surprise to the state’s public school employees and supporters that Governor Walker and conservative legislators have proposed tax cuts, not restoring the billions they’ve siphoned from public schools. Walker and his allies have used the state budget process to cut $1.6 billion from public education and to direct public money into a private school voucher scheme. With election season fast approaching, Walker will surely use tonight’s state-of-the-state address to paint himself as an economic fixer, even as his policies have driven Wisconsin to 44th in the nation in job creation, and 49th in economic outlook.
Indiana has a $93 million ongoing budget surplus, but the state’s public school system has suffered years of draconian cuts. Many have lost beloved staff, and some fear they will no longer be able to offer full-day kindergarten or transportation as Gov. Pence continues former Gov. Daniels’ program of diverting public money to private ventures that don’t serve all of the state’s students. In his state-of-the-state address, Gov. Pence called for preschool investment, but tied the proposal to vouchers and faith-based programs that are not held to the same standards as public schools.
Kansas is one of the states whose economic outlook isn’t yet on the upswing, thanks largely to tax cuts that benefit most those who need help the least, pushed by Gov. Brownback and conservative legislators the past two years. Brownback used his state-of-the state address as a platform to rail against a lawsuit brought by several school districts over the state’s woeful underfunding of its public schools. The Kansas Supreme Court is expected to rule any day on whether legislators have failed to uphold an article in the state constitution regarding the adequate funding of public schools. Educators and parents have fought hard to keep lawmakers from dismantling the state’s public schools, and it seems their work will not be done any time soon.