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Why Republicans are now bragging about their investments in education

On Aug. 24, 2017, protesters gather at the Arizona School for the Arts in Phoenix as Gov. Doug Ducey tours the school. (Ross D. Franklin/Associated Press)

An earlier version of this story about Republican politicians’ sudden embrace of increased school funding incorrectly said that anti-tax activist Grover Norquist opposes any revenue increases for education. Norquist opposes any overall increase in state or federal revenue, but he said he would not oppose higher taxes for school funding if taxes were cut by an equal amount elsewhere in the budget.

Wisconsin Gov. Scott Walker, who made his name attacking unions and slashing school funding, is promising a “historic investment” in public schools as he campaigns for reelection.

Florida Gov. Rick Scott, another proud cost-cutter, is bragging about his more recent increases to school funding as he prepares to launch a bid for the U.S. Senate.

In Arizona, Gov. Doug Ducey, who won office on a “shrink government” platform, now boasts of his own plan for more school money, backed by a $1 million advertising campaign promoting the increases from supportive state businesses.

The new rhetorical approach represents a major turnabout for a generation of conservative leaders who came into office promising to get better results with less taxpayer money for public schools. The backlash that boiled over into a teacher walkout in West Virginia is playing out in several states, as teachers and the public demand more money after years of tight budgets and a Republican focus on tax cuts. That has forced a change in strategy, even as the legislators continue to resist calls for new taxes.

The schools in all of these states have not yet gotten back to the levels of per-pupil spending they had before the 2008 recession, when adjusted for inflation, and school administrators say teacher quality and student results have suffered as a result. But the spreading protests have not yet faced the typical GOP pushback against public employees and their unions. It is a shift that could have big consequences for the national debate over education, as Republicans in Washington have begun to embrace more populist rhetoric that is sympathetic to the plight of public employees.

“This is much more a conversation about schools we used to have before the George W. Bush years, and it is driven more about questions of teacher spending and pay than testing and accountability,” said Frederick M. Hess, an education scholar at the conservative American Enterprise Institute. “Republicans in this Trumpian populist moment might say ‘I don’t want to be on the wrong side of giving more pay to middle-class teachers.’ ”

Low taxes, rising Medicaid costs and, in many states, declining revenue from natural resources have produced painful conditions for both teachers and schools, with educators leaving en masse for higher-wage jobs, classroom conditions deteriorating and some districts even adopting four-day school weeks.

Teachers have seized on the public’s emotion, pushing legislators for more money even in states where they lack collective bargaining rights. Much of the action is coming with the support of school districts and superintendents, not in opposition to them. In West Virginia, superintendents closed schools to avoid a formal strike when teachers planned a walkout. That action resulted in a 5 percent pay raise.

A similar effort is planned for Oklahoma on April 2, if legislators do not first approve a pay raise, with more than 80 school districts around the state already voicing support. Teachers in Arizona are exploring a walkout as well.

“The only way we win things is that there is real solidarity among the members and there is community support,” said Randi Weingarten, president of the American Federation of Teachers, a national union. She attributed the teachers’ actions, and legislators’ reaction, to underinvestment in schools.

Between 2008 and 2015, the total state per-student funding for grade schools dropped in 29 states, with the sharpest drops coming in Republican-led places such as Arizona, Florida, Alabama and Idaho, according to a study last year by the left-leaning think tank Center on Budget and Policy Priorities. The effects of the cuts varied for each state, but in some they were severe.

In Oklahoma, where tax breaks and declining oil prices have sapped state revenue, the number of teachers has dropped by 700 over four years, even as enrollment has increased by 15,000. More than 2,000 classes — in foreign language, art, music and consumer science — have been canceled, according to the Oklahoma Policy Institute.

In Arizona, another of the lowest-paying states for teachers, funding per student dropped 37 percent between 2008 and 2015, according to a study by the Center on Budget and Policy Priorities. Ducey, who was elected in 2014, has been boasting of a 10 percent increase in funding, paid for largely by redirecting money from the state’s land-trust fund.

“I want to pay them more,” said Ducey, a Republican, of his state’s teachers last week during a radio interview in Phoenix, as hundreds of teachers and their supporters protested outside the station.

The local business community is buying TV ads, at more than $100,000 a week for two months, arguing that schools “are making progress.” The ads are funded through nonpolitical groups but are widely seen as providing cover for Ducey in advance of elections this fall.

Like other Republican governors facing reelection, Ducey explains his push for more funding as a consequence of the state’s own recovery from the revenue shortfalls that followed the 2008 recession. He has stopped short of advocating major new taxes to pay for schools, setting up a showdown for November with Democrats who plan to press the issue.

“When I first came to the legislature, there were Republicans on the floor that referred to public schools as ‘government schools,’ ” said Arizona state Sen. Steve Farley, one of the Democrats mounting an uphill campaign against Ducey. “Now I am seeing Republican superintendents, particularly in rural areas, just outraged at the state of public schools. They know we have the money and have just given it away.”

Teachers groups in Arizona have studied the success of the West Virginia teachers and have begun a series of direct actions, including holding in-school protests, starting social media campaigns and even publishing their pay stubs online to generate public sympathy. “You have to do a lot of preparation before you take the actual walkout,” said Dale Lee, president of the West Virginia Education Association, who has been advising teachers in Kentucky and Arizona. “When the entire education community joins, it makes it really strong.”

Arizona State Sen. John Kavanaugh, the Republican chair of the appropriations committee, said there is a limit to how much pressure teachers can put on legislators, many of whom oppose raising taxes and will not face serious challengers in November because of the way districts are gerrymandered. “We are doing all that we can reasonably,” he said, explaining that Republicans support reallocating funds but not increasing taxes. “As far as Democrats riding this to victory: not in Arizona.”

In Oklahoma, where Democrats hold no statewide offices, there are signs that Republicans have been losing ground. Of seven special elections for Republican-held state legislative seats last year, four were won by Democrats. Two of the winners were teachers, and education funding was the top issue in each of their races.

“There is no one else to blame at this point. Everyone from Donald Trump down to their local school board are Republicans,” said Anna Langthorn, chair of the Oklahoma Democratic Party, who expects further legislative gains in November. “We’re not going to flip the House overnight, but I think we have the opportunity to really gain some numbers.”

The state’s Republican leaders are scrambling for the third time in less than a year to identify tax increases to pay for raises. The new revenue targeted to teacher salaries is supported even by the state’s premier conservative think tank, the Oklahoma Council of Public Affairs, which argued as recently as 2015 that more money would not improve student outcomes.

A slightly different conflict is playing out in Kentucky, where teachers, chanting “We’ll remember in November,” successfully demanded that the state Senate delay a vote on cuts to teacher pensions that are favored by Republican Gov. Matt Bevin. On March 21, more than 60 Kentucky schools agreed to close so that teachers could travel to the capitol to protest the cuts.

Bevin, who is not up for reelection until 2019, has dismissed the teachers as “selfish” and “ignorant.” Acting House Speaker David Osborne, a Republican, said the governor’s comments “showed a lack of understanding” of the plight of teachers.

That new concern over the plight of schools has been showing up in less conservative states, including Wisconsin. A recent Marquette University poll found that 63 percent of the state’s voters would choose to increase spending on public schools over cutting property taxes, up from 46 percent in 2014. Voters across the state have approved hundreds of local referendums over the past decade that have raised billions of dollars from increased property taxes for schools.

Walker, who enacted large cuts to school funding in 2011, has responded to the shifting opinion by proposing a $200-per-pupil increase in funding this year, on top of a similar increase last year. Funding, when adjusted for inflation, is still down during his tenure, however. Earlier this month, Walker signed a bill to make it easier for school districts to raise more tax money without referendums, even though he had opposed a similar bill last year.

“Since January last year, Governor Walker has made more than 75 school visits and has heard from parents, teachers and grandparents that education was a top priority,” said Amy Hasenberg, his spokeswoman. “We’ve been able to do this without raising property taxes on the typical home.”

Walker’s likely Democratic opponent this fall plans to make education a central issue. “He can pretend all he wants,” said Tony Evers, the state’s schools superintendent. “He has now funneled all this money into schools, but it is not back to where it was. People get it, and they remember.”

Conservative activists are bracing for some legislative losses at the state level in the coming months, as politicians respond to public pressure. They point out that the teacher raises in West Virginia happened without any new tax increases, and there are other places where the march toward creating more private and charter school competition to the public system continues unabated.

“The teachers union is the most powerful lobby in all 50 states for higher taxes and more spending, full stop,” said Grover Norquist, president of Americans for Tax Reform, who opposes any overall increases in revenue. “The other team sometimes gets to win.”