Your State Might Be Spending Less on Schools Than Before the Recession

In 23 states, total state funding per student is lower than in the 2008 school year.
Abandoned classroom. (Photo: Erik Anderson/Getty Images)
Oct 21, 2016· 3 MIN READ
A veteran journalist and former White House correspondent for Politico, Joseph Williams is a freelance writer, blogger, and essayist in Washington, D.C.

When the Great Recession swept across the nation like a tsunami in 2008, the financial wreckage it left behind was so bad that dozens of states took the budgetary ax to education, long considered a sacrosanct fiscal expense.

Now that the economy has rebounded, however, 35 states are continuing to shortchange their K–12 school systems—and some are spending even less per student than before the recession hit, according to a new study by a Washington think tank.

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“Public investment in K–12 schools—crucial for communities to thrive and the U.S. economy to offer broad opportunity—has declined dramatically in a number of states over the last decade,” said the report released Thursday by the Center on Budget and Policy Priorities. “Worse, most of the deepest-cutting states have also cut income tax rates, weakening their main revenue source for supporting schools.”

As a result, according to the report, schools are struggling to attract quality teachers, parents are shouldering a heavier financial burden for supplies and after-school activities, students aren’t getting the level of education they need to compete in the 21st-century economy, and poor and minority students are likely to fall farther behind their white peers.

“If you would have told me a few years ago that we have so many states still with cuts of this magnitude in their K–12 schools, I would have been surprised,” Michael Leachman, CBPP’s director of state fiscal research and one of the report’s coauthors, told TakePart.

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“This recession was so damaging and so deep that a lot of states did cut [education],” Leachman said. “But then, after the depths of the recession, you’ve had several years now of revenue growth. Most states have been adding back [to their budgets] since 2012 or so.”

Additionally, “we were struck that most of the deepest-cutting states also cut taxes, which weakened one of their main revenue sources” for school funding, Leachman said. That argument, he said, undercuts conservatives’ argument that tax cuts can generate revenue.

“It was kind of a free lunch—you could cut your revenue and the economy would boom so much you wouldn’t have to worry about [funding] schools,” Leachman said. “That hasn’t worked, and those states have to reverse course.”

At least 23 states “will provide less ‘general’ or ‘formula’ funding—the primary form of state support for elementary and secondary schools—in the current school year than when the Great Recession took hold in 2008,” according to the report.

“Eight states have cut general funding per student by about 10 percent or more over this period,” the report read. “Five of those eight—Arizona, Kansas, North Carolina, Oklahoma, and Wisconsin—enacted income tax rate cuts costing tens or hundreds of millions of dollars each year rather than restore education funding.”

While most of the nation’s 50 states raised general funding per student this year, “19 states imposed new cuts, even as the national economy continues to improve,” said the report. “Some of these states, including Oklahoma, Kansas, and North Carolina, already were among the deepest-cutting states since the recession hit.”

Because federal aid to public schools has also declined, “the cuts have led to job losses, deepening the recession and slowing the economy’s recovery,” the report’s authors wrote. “They also impede important state education reform initiatives at a time when producing workers with high-level technical and analytical skills is increasingly important to the country’s prosperity.”

The political decision not to restore state funding to schools is having an impact beyond the classroom, Leachman said.

In Alabama, for example, tax cuts “didn’t raise the revenue to help them recover,” and the schools have taken big hits, he said. Despite the national economic rebound, Leachman said, “their budget’s been hurting in a number of areas, and they just haven’t been able to really recover because they’ve chosen not to raise any revenue to help them speed that process. They’re still way down in the hole.”

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There are signs some states have gotten the message, Leachman said. In Oklahoma, for example, voters are going to decide whether to impose a sales tax hike to raise money for schools, and Kansas and Maine are also looking at ways to raise money to put back the cuts they made to school budgets.

Ultimately, though, more lawmakers are going to have to realize that schools are an investment that will pay dividends for their state and their nation, he said.

“The education of these kids is the future quality of our workforce. It also matters for quality of life—it means that the educational experience of these kids really shapes their life opportunities and what they know about the world,” Leachman said.

“There’s a reason why [public education] traditionally had been a political third rail,” he said. “I think it’s broadly recognized that kids’ educations are broadly important to our future.”