Teacher protests in 2018 helped lead to a big boost in education funding in four states, but a new report says it wasn’t enough to make up for earlier cuts. In those states and more than dozen others, state spending on general education is still less than before the 2008 Great Recession.
And the report, issued Wednesday by the nonprofit, nonpartisan Center on Budget and Policy Priorities, says most of the places that increased general education funding did it in ways that are not sustainable.
The study found that when education spending has grown relative to pre-recession levels, that growth has come at the local level. And that’s a problem for poor districts because local funding is dependent on property taxes. Wealthier areas have more to spend, and funding from the state and the federal government can’t make up the difference between affluent and poor districts.
“These trends are very concerning for the country’s future prospects,” said Michael Leachman, senior director of state fiscal research at the center and co-author of the report with senior policy analyst Eric Figueroa.
The report focuses on general education funding over the last decade in the 12 states that made the deepest cuts during the recession: Alabama, Arizona, Idaho, Kansas, Kentucky, Michigan, Mississippi, North Carolina, Oklahoma, Texas, Utah and West Virginia.
Using data from the U.S. Census Bureau and state budgets, the authors said state general education funding in those 12 states “remains well below 2008 levels.”
States distribute most of their education funding through a formula that allocates money to school districts to support general educational activities, including teacher salaries, supplies and textbooks (but usually does not include transportation or pension contributions). Each state has its own formula. Most target some extra money to poorer districts, which disproportionately educate children of color. But those districts can’t raise as much in local money as wealthier ones.
In Texas, “formula funding per student” — which is the chief state education revenue that states give to districts and is referred to as “general education funding” — is 20 percent below where it stood in 2008 adjusted for inflation after legislators made cuts last year, the report said.
There were teacher protests in spring 2018 in five of the 12 states with the deepest cuts: Arizona, Kentucky, North Carolina, Oklahoma and West Virginia. (Teachers in Colorado also went out on strike, but the state was not among those that had cut education funding the most.)
After a statewide teachers strike in Oklahoma, the legislature boosted general education funding by 19 percent after adjusting for inflation. Arizona, North Carolina and West Virginia increased funding between 3 and 9 percent, while Kentucky remained flat (though the protests there were primarily about pensions).
But Leachman said that in each of those five states, general education funding is at least 6 percent below pre-recession levels. About 20 states — including those five — remain below pre-recession levels, even though many boosted funding last year. Oklahoma is still providing 15 percent less for the state’s per-student funding formula than it did before 2008 — even after an increase of hundreds of millions of dollars, he said.
“Worse,” he said, “the methods used by most of these states to pay for funding hikes are not particularly sustainable.”
Arizona used one-time funding shifts and “rosy” funding assessments to pay for its increases. North Carolina “increased funding for schools without raising new revenue to do so,” the report says. Oklahoma raised taxes on cigarettes and gas, but that revenue is likely to grow more slowly than school costs, he said.
Leachman said the national trend away from state funding and toward local funding since the recession raises “equity concerns” for low-income areas that do not derive as much from property taxes as wealthy jurisdictions.
The report said that “while combined state and local funding in 2016 was nearly back to pre-recession levels nationally, state funding was down $166 per student while local funding was up $161.”
It also said some states have “made new investments that research suggests are likely to boost student outcomes, an approach that likely will strengthen those state economies over time relative to their neighbors.” Those states include Minnesota, the report says, which in 2013 approved tax increases for high-income households to pay for full-day kindergarten programs throughout the state, plus scholarships that enable more low-income children to attend preschool and to afford college.
“Research has found that high-quality early education programs boost long-term outcomes for low-income children, to the benefit of state economies generally,” the report said. “And states that produce more college graduates are likely to be more productive, resulting in a higher quality of life and faster economic growth.”
The report also said most states cut teacher pay in recent years. Leachman said at least 16 governors have said they want to boost salaries for educators, but few have said how they would pay for raises.