Thursday, 18 Jul 2024

Voters Widely Support Public Schools. So Why Is It So Hard to Pay for Them?

If it were going to happen any year, it should have been this one. After a wave of teacher walkouts fired up people on both sides of the party line, the time seemed ripe for big investments in public schools.

In reality, the results for school funding after the midterm elections last week were mixed, and illustrate a paradox in how Americans view education.

Polls showed that the public supported the picketing teachers across the country who protested low pay and classroom funding. And a diverse group of candidates, Democratic and Republican, were elected after casting themselves as education champions. But many voters, particularly in conservative and swing states, were unwilling to open their wallets to send state tax dollars to educators and classrooms.

And in some states where education funding is among the lowest nationwide, voters approved ballot measures that will make it even harder to direct money to schools in the future.

“Taxes are just a very difficult conversation,” said Amie Baca-Oehlert, president of the Colorado Education Association, the state’s largest teachers’ union. Coloradans, after seeing teachers walk out in April over school funding, rejected a ballot initiative last week to pay for schools by raising corporate taxes and personal income taxes on those earning over $150,000 a year.

Those voters also elected a Democratic governor, Jared Polis, who supports sending more money to schools, and flipped control of the State Senate from red to blue. But legislators’ hands will be tied when it comes to raising revenue: Colorado requires all tax increases be approved directly by voters.

Overall funding in the state is below the national average by more than $2,000 per student. Colorado has a teacher shortage and the nation’s largest gap between the salaries of teachers and those of other professionals with similar qualifications and hours, according to a report by the Education Law Center. But the state’s economy is booming, with an influx of jobs in the tech and marijuana industries.

A perennial challenge for public school advocates, Ms. Baca-Oehlert said, was getting the political messaging right.

“There is complexity to it. It’s hard to talk about school funding in a 30-second political ad,” she said. “It was about a person-to-person conversation, talking to your friends and neighbors. And we have to continue to do that.”

Ms. Baca-Oehlert added that with the failure of the tax measure, her union would push policymakers to support educators in other ways, perhaps through affordable housing or student loan forgiveness for teachers.

In Arizona, another state where teachers walked out, voters rejected the expansion of a program that would allow tax dollars to pay for private school tuition, a win for traditional public schools. But they overwhelmingly approved a ballot initiative that prohibits new state or local taxes on personal services, such as real estate sales and beauty treatments.

The initiative torpedoed a potential source of school funding in a state with some of the lowest corporate and income taxes in the nation. Gov. Doug Ducey, a Republican, and his Democratic challenger, David Garcia, both opposed the measure.

Crystal Markowsky is a parent of three public school students in Chandler, Ariz., outside Phoenix. A political independent, she protested alongside her children’s teachers last spring, and ended up voting largely for Democrats this year, because, she said, she was concerned about education and women’s issues.

Ms. Markowsky said that she had opposed the tax ban, but only reluctantly, and that she generally supported lower taxes on services.

Ultimately, the approval of the tax ban, she said, as well as the re-election of Mr. Ducey, who bested a candidate running as a progressive champion of teachers, demonstrated that Arizona remains fundamentally conservative, despite talk of a diversifying, more liberal electorate there.

“It’s a red state where we just want low taxes at the cost of anything,” Ms. Markowsky said.

Even voters in swing states like North Carolina and Florida balked at the prospect of raising taxes. North Carolina, another walkout state, approved a ballot measure to lower the income tax cap allowed by the State Constitution. Voters in Florida passed a measure to require a two-thirds majority of the State Legislature to pass new taxes and fees or raise existing ones. Similar laws in other states have made it difficult to direct money to schools.

The teachers’ movement was not without its wins last week. Voters did open their pocketbooks for local classrooms, if not for those statewide. In Miami; Toledo, Ohio; Charleston, W.Va.; and other cities, they raised or renewed municipal taxes to finance their own districts, demonstrating that the most popular school spending, unsurprisingly, happens closest to home.

Leaders of teachers’ unions also pointed to the success of Democratic candidates for governor in Wisconsin, Michigan, Kansas and New Mexico, all of whom emphasized investing in schools.

But they acknowledged that a message of taxing the rich to pay for education had not yet hit home in states with conservative or libertarian leanings.

“There was a sense that after the teacher strikes, we would have a wave of electoral victories in every single place in the nation,” said Randi Weingarten, president of the American Federation of Teachers, one of two national unions. Those expectations, she added, were never realistic given deep and persistent national divides.

Lily Eskelsen García, president of the National Education Association, the other national union, celebrated the fact that Democrats and Republicans alike ran campaigns unreservedly in favor of public education. It wasn’t long ago when members of both parties were more likely to criticize public schools and teachers as ineffective.

“Now what we have is a whole bunch of folks who made promises” to support schools, she said. “Some of them were real promises, and some were big fat liars. What we’re going to do is keep score.”

Follow Dana Goldstein on Twitter: @DanaGoldstein.

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