By Amanda Litvinov
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The GOP tax plan making its way through Congress should rile anyone who cares about public schools. Chock full of giveaways for the wealthy and corporations, both the House and Senate versions promise cuts to public education, along with a greater burden for middle class families to bear.
No one needs to explain the stakes of such a plan to Kansas teacher Brett Parker, who teaches English language learners at Countryside Elementary School in Olathe. His state implemented a similar plan of steep tax cuts weighted toward the wealthy in 2011, after Gov. Brownback and his allies promised it would bring economic growth and prosperity for all Kansans.
What they got instead was an unparalleled economic crisis.
“Governor Brownback described his program of tax cuts for the rich and big business as an experiment,” said Parker. “Well, we did the experiment, and it has been a disaster.”
The Kansas Center for Economic Growth says Brownback’s tax cuts inflicted more damage on state finances in the first year alone than the entire Great Recession. As the New York Times reported in 2014, Kansas collected $700 million less in tax revenue that year compared to the previous year.
The effect on schools has been devastating. Per pupil spending declined by $861, or 14.6%, between 2008 and 2015. Faced with tough decisions, some districts increased class sizes, cut paraeducator hours, and eliminated extracurriculars. Some shaved days from the school year.
When Gov. Brownback was re-elected in 2014, Parker was distressed and came close to uprooting his life to move to a different state. He realized that many voters did not yet understand the relationship between Brownback’s policies and the state’s economic downturn.
But instead of leaving his home state, Parker became more involved in his union and in local politics. He says he was helping to locate people to run for office in 2016 when he felt compelled to jump in, too.
Parker won his race for a seat in the Kansas House of Representatives, and now represents Overland Park, the same county where he grew up.
“By the time I ran for office, so many more people in Kansas and nationally saw the connection between our policies and our hardships,” Parker said. “Our budget was so bad we became a late night talk show punch line. There was a lot of national attention on the fact that something had gone disastrously wrong here.”
So what does a Kansas teacher who has lived through the fallout of bogus “tax reform” skewed toward the rich think of the plan working its way through Congress?
“I refuse to believe that these tax cuts will ever pay for themselves,” Parker said. “They come at great cost to people who rely on public schools, which is most people.”
The multi-trillion dollar tax plan passed by the House last week nearly eliminates the state and local tax deductions, which puts 250,000 education jobs at risk, according to an analysis by the National Education Association. That includes 1,847 educator jobs in Kansas. The House plan also shifts more tax burden onto families with modest incomes, eliminates the popular educator tax deduction of up to $250 in classroom expenses, and expands a tax loophole for wealthy families to pay for private school expenses.
The Senate proposal fully eliminates the state and local tax deductions, which potentially puts at risk funding for 370,000 education jobs, according to the NEA research. It would also hurt middle-class families with a partial repeal of the individual mandate of the Affordable Care Act, which would leave 13 million Americans uninsured and result in drastic spikes in insurance premiums.
“We’ve been down this road before,” said elementary teacher and NEA President Lily Eskelsen Garcia. “Lawmakers pass massive tax cuts then come back later demanding huge cuts to Medicaid, Medicare, Social Security and education to ‘pay for’ the tax breaks for wealthy people and corporations who are not paying their fair share before getting new tax breaks.”
“As with their health care debacle this year, Republican leaders are rushing to pass a massive, partisan bill that impacts every American household, critical public services like education, and our economy without giving it the scrutiny and deliberation it deserves,” Garcia said.
Kansans have been outspoken about their disappointment in Brownback’s tax cuts for the wealthy and corporations, and how those polices affected their schools. In a poll commissioned by the Kansas Center for Economic Growth, 83 percent of the 700 voters surveyed said Brownback’s tax policy hurt the Kansas economy; 85 percent expressed concern about inadequate spending on public education.
Parker is generally more hopeful about the future of his state than he was a few years ago. Moderate lawmakers have been regaining seats in the state legislature, which has set out to reverse the damage done under Gov. Brownback’s tax plan and address the court-ordered revision of the school funding formula.
Kansas parents and educators bravely stood up for their schools throughout the Brownback era.
“Many public education activists emerged as parents saw their kids’ schools lose resources and staff, and watched their class sizes go up and up each year,” said Parker, who is eager to resume his work in the state legislature in January.
“I look forward to the day when we constitutionally fund our public schools in Kansas,” Parker said. “But that will only be made more difficult if Congress refuses to learn from what happened here and goes forward with their incredibly misguided tax plan.”