American teachers are angry.
They have taken to the streets in West Virginia, Oklahoma, Kentucky, Arizona, Colorado — and more recently in North Carolina. Dissent is building in Louisiana and Nevada, too.
But while the protests are spreading this year, the underlying conflict between public school employees and policymakers has roots in decisions made during the last recession, when states and local districts short of cash curtailed education spending for the first time in decades.
This had a pronounced effect on school staffing, with layoffs hitting many states. Districts cut support staff as well as regular classroom teachers. In North Carolina, the number of teachers is down 5 percent since peaking in 2009, while the number of teaching assistants is 28 percent lower. And teacher pay stagnated nonetheless.
Moreover, the recovery that has lifted the private economy has not quite restored school spending to pre-recession levels, especially in states run by fiscal conservatives determined to hold the line on government spending.
For a system that had experienced nothing but spending growth for a quarter century, the past few years have been a major shock. K-12 spending per pupil rose 26 out of 29 years before 2010, only to tumble three consecutive years at the beginning of this decade.
“Per-pupil spending went up forever,” said Matthew Chingos, director of the Urban Institute’s education policy program.
One reason for the consistent rise was a movement in education to reduce class sizes by adding teachers, and to provide more social services beyond basic instruction. These efforts picked up steam in the 1990s in part in reaction to publication of Jonathan Kozol’s “Savage Inequalities,” which documented the vast disparities in school spending between wealthy and poor school districts, spurring lawsuits and education reform movements in many states to equalize funding by enlarging the overall pot of education money.
“The book highlighted these hideous inequalities in schooling, where there were 50 students in a class with pipes that were broken and stuff like that, and there was a very good, earnest push toward increasing equity,” said Marguerite Roza, a research professor and director of the Edunomics Lab at Georgetown University.
Then came a one-two punch to the growth in education spending: The recession worsened financial problems already widespread in many states, and voters began electing conservative governors and legislatures that promised to rein in budget woes with spending cuts.
Almost every state reduced education spending during the recession. But as the national economy recovered, education spending did not return to the historical pattern of steady growth across all states. By 2016, more than half of states controlled by Democrats had restored education spending per pupil to 2009 levels, but the same was true in only 5 of 22 states controlled by Republicans.
Some red states have seen slower growth in state and local revenues, in part because of economic factors but also because of tax cuts. The Center on Budget and Policy Priorities, a liberal think tank, notes that seven states with school funding controversies — Arizona, Idaho, Kansas, Michigan, Mississippi, North Carolina and Oklahoma — cut taxes in recent years.
In Kansas, where conservatives had been particularly aggressive in cutting the size of government, the state Supreme Court recently ruled the school funding system there unconstitutional because it failed to meet state requirements to finance education adequately. Republican lawmakers were further shocked when their hand-picked consultant’s report tied increased funding to improved outcomes and recommended billions in additional education spending.
On top of fiscal policy decisions, a more fundamental concern is the increasing volatility of state tax revenues, said Bruce Baker, a professor of education at Rutgers University who studies school finance.
States cover about 47 cents of every dollar spent on public education, with a further 45 cents raised locally, mostly through property taxes, and 8 cents coming from the federal government.
Real estate values swing more wildly now than in the past, and traditional wage income has become a decreasing share of the income tax base, making revenue streams less reliable and harder to predict.
The political climate has also made it tougher to overhaul the tax system in any way that could be perceived as a tax increase, whether in good economic times or bad.
It’s easy to see why teachers are in the vanguard of the protest. Teacher salaries make up the bulk of education spending — so when education spending stagnates or is cut, teachers feel the pain most directly.
In many of the states spending less on education, average teacher pay has fallen sharply. Nationwide, pay is down 5 percent this decade, to an average $58,950 from $61,804.
But this doesn’t necessarily mean administrators are cutting teacher pay. It also, in some states, signifies high teacher turnover, with older, higher-paid teachers retiring and being replaced by younger, lower-paid ones.
Overall, however, the U.S. teaching force is growing more experienced, not less. And federal data show that teacher pay nationally has fallen in inflation-adjusted terms. Compared with 2007-08, starting teacher pay is lower, as is average pay for more experienced teachers.
Protests over these cuts have been directed mostly at state capitols, where overall education policy is administered.
Yet in states that have struggled with education funding, local revenues have also played a role, especially in red states. Census data show that while reductions in state aid were universal during the recession, many blue states — which tend to be wealthier to begin with — still experienced local revenue growth that somewhat mitigated the losses.
Not so in many red states, where schools saw reductions in both state and local funding.
“Many states will cut state aid for schools and then impose limits on property tax increases as part of a broader package pushing for austerity in spending,” Baker said.
Property taxes to fund education have been attacked by both small-government conservatives and by liberals who note the wide disparity in tax bases in wealthy and poorer communities.
Despite the inequity, “local money was the most relatively stable and healthy” revenue source for education, Roza said, “and so closing that spigot meant it was much harder to fund education from the statehouse.”
“Inevitably, state budgets were competing with Medicaid and pensions and higher ed funding,” she said, “and so that money could not grow as fast as local money could grow.”
The nation’s chief educator, Betsy DeVos, recently tweeted a chart depicting the huge increase in education spending plotted against a less than stellar trend line showing student performance: “Test scores continue to stagnate. This is not something we’re going to spend our way out of.”
DeVos’ critics, however, say there are many factors that could be holding overall test performance down.
And recent studies have found that spending disparities matter. University of Pennsylvania researchers showed the impact of the recession was greater on low-income students, particularly in districts with major budget cuts.
Another paper, by a researcher at Northwestern University, found that students in districts that cut funding the most in the wake of the recession posted lower test scores than peers and were less likely to graduate from high school.
It now seems the pendulum is swinging toward spending growth in states that had been lagging.
Teachers in West Virginia and Oklahoma protested and won a pay raise. Pressure from educators spurred the Kentucky legislature to block the governor from vetoing the budget. And in Georgia, political pressure forced leaders to fully fund the state aid formula for the first time in years.
Attention has turned to North Carolina, where thousands of teachers protested at the opening of the state legislative session. North Carolina teachers once ranked 19th in the nation in pay, but now rank 37th.