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Wary of Teacher Walkouts, States Aim to Boost School Spending

Elementary students, from right, Sawyer Mack is joined by his sisters, Capri and Kaya in support of a teachers strike in front of Hamilton High School in Los Angeles on Wed. Jan. 16, 2019.

Elementary students, from right, Sawyer Mack is joined by his sisters, Capri and Kaya in support of a teachers strike in front of Hamilton High School in Los Angeles on Wed. Jan. 16, 2019. AP Photo

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Lots of new governors campaigned on raising teacher pay and boost education spending. Will state legislatures act on these pledges to come up with more school funding?

This story was originally published by Stateline, an initiative of The Pew Charitable Trusts.

DENVER — Spurred by teacher strikes and a sense of crisis, Colorado’s new governor is one of 33 newly elected leaders of states and territories who campaigned on improving education funding. In many states, both Republicans and Democrats agree that schools need more money and teachers need better pay.

Education “is probably the most important issue” facing the legislature, said Colorado state Sen. Bob Rankin, a Republican who recently co-chaired a state education council.

But while most states are likely to put more money into schools this year, political divisions, budget constraints and competing visions for how to fix the education system could lead to some tense debates.

Colorado is one state where education funding might spark a battle even though finances have improved. Colorado is projected to have $1.2 billion more to spend in the coming fiscal year.

But lawmakers will have to balance Democratic Gov. Jared Polis’ $250 million campaign pledge to offer full-day kindergarten to all children against other priorities, such as a push by teachers unions to spend $672 million to bring K-12 funding up to the level recommended by the state school funding formula.

And a 1992 state constitutional amendment that limits the legislature’s power to tax and grow revenue may require some of the new money to be refunded to residents.

Meanwhile, inspired by last year’s strike in West Virginia and walkouts in Arizona and Oklahoma, teachers in Colorado and many other states intend to keep pressuring lawmakers and district leaders for more school funding and better compensation.

This year kicked off with a six-day strike in Los Angeles that sent thousands of red-clad teachers marching through city streets and won them caps on class sizes, more support staff and fewer standardized tests. Teachers in Denver last week voted to strike, an action that’s on hold while the state Department of Labor attempts to mediate the dispute.

“Over the course of the last 10 years, you had the needs of students and teachers being ignored by politicians and those in power, and teachers trying to do things the right way—trying to talk about what their needs were—but they were disparaged and dismissed,” American Federation of Teachers President Randi Weingarten said.

Now teachers are pushing harder to have their needs met.

In Virginia, for example, Democratic Gov. Ralph Northam has proposed increasing school spending by $269 million—the state’s fiscal 2019 budget allocated about $7 billion for K-12 education—and boosting teacher salaries by 5 percent, up from a 3 percent raise approved last year. Some teachers say that’s not enough.

“Five percent feels insufficient,” said Sarah Pedersen, a middle school history teacher in Richmond. She’s organizing Virginia Educators United, a coalition of teachers and education supporters calling for a 14 percent raise to bring salaries up to the national average — $59,660 in 2017, according to the National Education Association (NEA), a labor union — plus more funding for support staff and school infrastructure. Educators rallied in Richmond on Monday to demand better funding for schools.

Several Republican leaders of the Virginia legislature contacted by Stateline did not respond to requests for comment.

A backlash to last year’s teacher strikes also may be brewing. Republican lawmakers in Arizona and Oklahoma have proposed bills that would limit educators’ power to speak up.

The Arizona bill would prohibit teachers from engaging in political advocacy, including expressing an opinion about legislation, court cases and executive branch activity. The Oklahoma bill would prohibit school strikes, deny teachers pay during a strike and revoke the teaching credentials of striking educators.

A Better Budget Picture

Spending cuts triggered by the Great Recession beginning in 2008 — combined with tax cuts in Republican-led states such as Kansas and Oklahoma — shrank education budgets across the country for much of the past decade.

As the economy has improved, so has spending. By 2016, state and local education funding had approximately returned to pre-recession levels, according to the Center on Budget and Policy Priorities, a left-leaning think tank based in Washington, D.C.

But 21 states and localities are still spending less per student than they did a decade ago, adjusted for inflation, according to a Stateline analysis of NEA statistics. Teacher salaries aren’t keeping up with the cost of living in pricey areas. And as state lawmakers cut funding, localities have had to increase spending—with wealthy ones more able to fill the gap by raising property taxes.

Last year’s educator strikes brought national attention to crumbling school buildings, tattered textbooks and underpaid teachers. In the 2018 midterms, a wave of educators ran for state office, and education funding dominated discussion in gubernatorial races from Arizona to Wisconsin.

“The question’s going to be, where’s that money going to come from?” said Mike Griffith, a school finance expert with the Education Commission of the States, the nonprofit arm of an interstate compact on education policy.

Colorado state Sen. Dominick Moreno, the Democratic chairman of the Joint Budget Committee, said lawmakers want to find ways to hold on to more of that state’s budget surplus, such as by reclassifying certain revenue sources so they’re not subject to the amendment, or raising the constitutional revenue limit, which lawmakers in 2017 lowered by $200 million.

Connecticut and Illinois, also states where Democrats control the governorship and both houses of the legislature after the 2018 elections, face bigger budget problems.

Illinois, for instance, is running a deficit that could reach over $1 billion this year. Meanwhile, the state board of education has asked for over $19 billion in funding for schools — more than double the $8.2 billion the legislature allocated last year.

Such a large funding increase isn’t likely to happen this year. But lawmakers could chip away at the funding gap over time by finding new money to spend, such as by restructuring pension fund payments or raising taxes, said Ralph Martire, executive director for the Chicago-based Center for Tax and Budget Accountability and a member of Democratic Gov. J.B. Pritzker’s transition team.

Lawmakers may be open to Pritzker’s campaign proposal to tax higher incomes at higher rates. “It’s a doable lift,” Martire said, albeit a time-consuming one, requiring supermajority support in both houses of the legislature and a voter referendum.

Rebalancing Education Funding

Lawmakers also want to change the way schools are funded. Policymakers in states such as Colorado, Massachusetts and Nevada want to spend more in low-income school districts.

Under Colorado’s school funding system, which has been constrained by two clashing constitutional limits on raising taxes, local contributions to education funding vary widely.

In some cases, the state ends up sending considerable amounts to wealthy districts with low property taxes—money that could help low-income districts with high taxes.

“It’s very clear that the system is messed up,” Moreno said, “and we need to do something about it.”

In other states, the focus will be on reducing the local tax burden. In Republican-led Texas, local taxes are projected to comprise 68 percent of school funding by 2023.

Gov. Greg Abbott, Lt. Gov. Dan Patrick and House Speaker Dennis Bonnen want to rebalance the system by cutting property taxes and increasing state funding. The House, Senate and governor proposed slightly different paths to achieving that goal.

Some policy analysts worry that Texas lawmakers could strike a deal that would create a new budget problem. Under the plan Abbott proposed last year, in 2023 schools would get an additional $74 million, but the state would give up $3.7 billion in property tax revenue.

“This is a property tax reduction plan, not a school finance plan,” said Chandra Kring Villanueva, program director at the Center for Public Policy Priorities, a left-leaning Austin think tank, in an email. The governor has said that it’s up to lawmakers to figure out how to pay for the tax cuts in his plan.

In Wisconsin, Democratic Gov. Tony Evers and Republican legislative leaders said they want to increase state education spending and ease the local property tax burden.

That may be all they agree on. Evers’ campaign promise to increase education funding by $1.4 billion (the state’s 2017 two-year budget allocated more than $13.7 billion for K-12 education) has little chance of making it through the legislature, said Jason Stein, research director of the Wisconsin Policy Forum, a nonpartisan think tank with offices in Milwaukee and Madison. Republican leaders have not put forward a budget proposal yet.

The governor and legislative leaders are far apart on many issues, from education to health care. “There’s always the possibility that no budget passes at all,” Stein said.

A Pay Boost for Teachers

Many state leaders, facing widespread teacher shortages and pressure from educators, want to earmark a portion of education funding for teacher pay increases.

Idaho Gov. Brad Little, a Republican, has called for increasing teacher starting salaries to $40,000, up from $35,800. Arkansas Gov. Asa Hutchinson, also a Republican, wants to increase the minimum teacher salary by $4,000 over four years. Georgia’s Republican Gov. Brian Kemp has called for a $3,000 increase in fiscal 2020.

Louisiana Gov. John Bel Edwards, a Democrat, has called increasing teacher salaries by $1,000 his “No. 1 priority” this year. And South Carolina Republican Gov. Henry McMaster, like Northam in Virginia, wants teachers to get a 5 percent raise.

Texas’ Abbott wants to increase merit pay, while Colorado’s Polis has called for student loan relief for teachers in rural areas.

With states expected, overall, to have healthy budgets this year, it looks like it could be a good year for teacher salaries and education funding, Griffith said. “The huge question is: Is that going to be 2 percent more or 8 percent more? There’s a huge difference between those numbers.”

In West Virginia, where public sector workers went on strike to demand higher pay last year, Republican Gov. Jim Justice and legislative leaders are preparing to give state employees their second 5 percent raise in two years.

But the latest Senate education funding package contains provisions teachers unions and other education groups oppose, such as class size increases and private school vouchers. 

The bill also would require teachers to agree annually to pay union dues and would halt educators’ paychecks during a strike. At a news conference at the Capitol, Fred Albert, president of American Federation of Teachers’ West Virginia chapter, called the bill “an attempt to silence employees.”

The president of the West Virginia Education Association, Dale Lee, said he was “very hopeful that our legislature learned from last year,” adding that educators would be watching as the pay increase proposal moves through the legislative process.