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  • Basic Facts About Who Pays State And Local Taxes

    Written on June 24, 2016

    Taxes, particularly income taxes, are among the most divisive and controversial issues in any nation, and this makes perfect sense – people care about how much they pay and how it is spent. Yet most of the constant, heated debate about taxation focuses almost entirely on federal taxes, with state and local taxes receiving far less attention.

    Periodically, the Institute on Taxation and Economic Policy (ITEP) releases an important and interesting analysis of who pays state and local taxes – that is, the tax burdens among households with different incomes. The latest version of this report was published last year. The findings are worth knowing for anyone interested in public sector services, including education.

    ITEP reports that state and local taxes overall are highly regressive, which means that poorer households pay a larger share of their income in state and local taxes than do higher income households. This finding is summarized in the figure below, which is taken directly from the report (note that these are national averages, and that the breakdown varies by state).

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  • New Report: Does Money Matter in Education? Second Edition

    Written on January 20, 2016

    In 2012, we released a report entitled “Does Money Matter in Education?,” written by Rutgers Professor Bruce Baker. The report presented a thorough, balanced review of the rather sizable body of research on the relationship between K-12 education spending and outcomes. The motivation for this report was to address the highly contentious yet often painfully oversimplified tribal arguments regarding the impact of education spending and finance reforms, as well as provide an evidence-based guide for policymakers during a time of severe budgetary hardship. It remains our most viewed resource ever, by far.

    Now, almost four years later, education spending in most states and localities is still in trouble. For example, state funding of education is lower in 2016 than it was in 2008 (prior to the recession) in 31 states (Leachman et al. 2016). Moreover, during this time, there has been a continuing effort to convince the public that how much we spend on schools doesn’t matter for outcomes, and that these spending cuts will do no harm.

    As is almost always the case, the evidence on spending in education is far more nuanced and complex than our debates about it (on both “sides” of the issue). And this evidence has been building for decades, with significant advances since the release of our first “Does Money Matter?” report. For this reason, we have today released the second edition, updated by the author. The report is available here.

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  • Librarians, Libraries, Serendipity And Passion

    Written on November 6, 2014

    Our guest author today is Connie Williams, a National Board Certified Teacher librarian at Petaluma High School in Petaluma, CA, past president of the California School Library Association, and co-developer of the librarian and teacher 2.0 classroom tutorials.

    Down the road from where I live, on the first-of-the month, a group of vintage car owners gather for a “cars and coffee” meet up. The cars that show up with their drivers cover many years and obsessions. Drivers park, open up the car hoods and take a few steps back and begin talking with other car owners and visitors who happen by. These are people who are interested in the way cars work, their history, and they all have stories to share.

    How do they know so much about their cars? They work on them – gaining insight by hands-on practice and consultations with experts. If they’re wealthy enough, they pay someone else to do the work, yet they don’t just hand over their cars to them. They read about them, participate in on-line groups, ask for guidance, and they drive them. Most often, when they drive them, someone stops and asks questions about their cars and they teach what they know to others. 

    This is an example of the kind of learning we would hope for, for all our students – a passion that is ignited and turns into knowledge that is grown, developed, and shared. In this sense, it is inquiry – asking questions and taking the required steps to answer them – that is at the heart of learning.

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  • Unreliable Sources: Education Revenue During The Recession

    Written on June 6, 2013

    For the better part of the past century, U.S. public education revenue has come predominantly from state and local sources, with the federal government contributing only a relatively small share. For most of this time, local revenue (primarily property taxes) comprised the largest proportion, but this began to shift gradually during the 1970s, to the point where state funds constituted a slightly larger share of overall revenue.

    As you can see in the simple graph below, which uses data from the U.S. Census Bureau, this situation persisted throughout the 1990s and most of the 2000s. During this period, states provided roughly 50 percent of total revenue, localities about 45 percent, and the federal government approximately 5-8 percent. Needless to say, these overall proportions varied quite a bit by state. Vermont represents one of the most extreme examples, where, as a result of a 1997 State Supreme Court decision, education funding comes almost entirely from the state. Conversely, since Hawaii’s education system consists of a single statewide district, revenue on paper is dominated by state sources (though, in Hawaii's case, you might view the state and local levels as the same).

    That said, the period of 2008 to 2010 was a time of pretty sharp volatility in the overall proportions contributed by each level of government.

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  • Why Do Most Americans Support "Assistance To The Poor" But Oppose "Welfare"?

    Written on November 17, 2011

    Politicians and other public figures spend a great deal of resources – time and money – on crafting their messages so as to elicit a desired response. A famous example is the effort to relabel the estate tax as the death tax – the former conjures images of very wealthy people paying their fair share, whereas the latter obscures this limited applicability, and invokes outrage at being “taxed just for dying."

    As everyone knows, words matter, and these efforts pay off. You don’t need to look at the results of too many surveys or polls to realize that people respond very differently depending on what you call something or how you describe it (e.g., see this post on attitudes toward teacher tenure).

    One other particularly interesting – and important – example of this description-based divergence of attitudes toward social programs for the poor.

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  • Americans Do NOT Want To Cut Government Programs

    Written on November 9, 2011

    Conservatives sometimes assert and often imply that Americans want to cut government spending on social assistance and other programs. This is a myth.

    In fact, when it comes to the types of programs that get most of the attention in our national debate, almost nobody supports spending reductions and, in many cases, there is strong support for increases.

    Take a look at the figure below, which presents General Social Survey data for 2010. Each bar presents the distribution of responses to questions of whether the U.S. spends too much (red), about the right amount (yellow) or too little (green) on several different types of programs and public resources.

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  • Similar Problems, Different Response: “We Are Public Education”

    Written on October 28, 2011

    Thousands of people from all over Spain demonstrated Saturday October 22nd in Madrid against severe austerity measures affecting public education in several Spanish regions. The march on Madrid, which attracted more than 100,000 protesters – huge by Spanish standards – was jointly organized by national education unions and the national parents’ association, CEAPA. Taking part in the protest, a somewhat unprecedented coalition: educators, parents, and students.

    The economy in Spain is in terrible shape. Parents and teachers don’t always have an ideal relationship, yet  Spaniards seem to have avoided the divisive and unproductive quarrels we often read about in the US education debate – e.g., adults versus children or teachers versus parents – in an attempt to prioritize long-term educational investment over short-term, budget-driven savings. This broad alliance is building consensus around the notion of “the education community." As the protest’s manifesto notes, such community is “society as a whole," which must unite to oppose drastic budget cuts in public education and attacks by political leaders on public school teachers.

    The nationwide protest was triggered by a recent government decision that bans the temporary hiring of teachers as part of a plan to reduce government spending. In various parts of the country, teachers have already been laid off, class sizes and teaching hours have increased significantly, and teachers will have to teach subjects they are not specialized in. Many schools will have to reduce extra-curricular activities, remedial classes for struggling students and integration classes for the children of immigrants. This situation triggered a series of regional demonstrations across Spain throughout the months of September and October – including student demonstrations in defense of public education – with protesters arguing that education quality has been put at risk. National in scale, the march on Madrid sends a broader message, with the potential of immediate political impact.

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  • What Do State And Local Governments Do?

    Written on June 30, 2011

    Those who wish to dismantle public services in the U.S. seem to share a general belief – accepted, to some extent, even by people who generally support public sector spending – that government is a massive, incompetent blob. At the federal level, I have always found this somewhat strange, since around two-thirds of federal spending goes towards Social Security, Medicare/Medicaid and national defense, programs that are generally popular and widely regarded as successful.

    Survey data indicate that people do trust state and local government more than they do federal government, but the level of confidence is still not particularly high. Americans also appear generally unwilling to pay higher taxes to preserve public services (except for education), and most accept that state and local government is too large and much of it is superfluous. But when people are asked about specific programs, they tend to respond favorably. This suggests, among other things, that people may have general perceptions of "government" without full knowledge of all the roles government plays.

    So, I thought it might be useful to take a quick look at how public dollars actually are spent. After all, it’s our money, and it’s always good to keep track of how our elected officials are spending it.

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  • Unions And Pensions: Unfunded Culpability

    Written on May 4, 2011

    The Pew Center on the States just released an updated report on unfunded liabilities of state pension (and retiree health) systems. The figures are sobering. In FY 2009, state pension plans were funded at an average of 79 percent, meaning that they were short about one dollar for every five that projections suggest they’ll need to meet their obligations.

    While there’s no doubt about the troublesome implications of these findings, there’s a lot of disagreement as to causes. Lately, governors and state legislators (of both parties, but mostly Republicans), as well as dozens of commentators, have tried to lay the blame on the public sector workers, to whom the pensions are owed – seeking to restrict these workers’ collective bargaining rights, with the claim that this will help control the cost of benefits.

    The unfairness of blaming public sector workers – and their unions – should be pretty clear. By all accounts (also here), the primary reason that pension plans are in trouble is that the 2008 collapse of financial markets decimated the value of pension fund investments (the early 2000’s recession also seems to have played a role). Add to that an aging population (there is an increasing percentage of retirees as a share of the population, and they are living longer), as well as the failure of many states to make their required contributions during good times, and you have a fairly comprehensive explanation for the pension "crisis."

    Nevertheless, some have argued that public employee collective bargaining has exacerbated states’ pension problems – after all, more than their non-union counterparts, union members have tended to trade current salaries in favor of increases in deferred benefits. In that case, we might expect that states with higher densities in public sector union membership will have larger unfunded pension obligations. These differences need not be huge, but it’s reasonable to anticipate that they would be discernible. Let’s take a look.

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  • The High Cost Of Closing Public Libraries

    Written on April 18, 2011

    Government budget cuts, at all levels, can have tragic effects. It will take us a long time to recover from the damage the current cuts have done and will do. There are many vital public services – such as health care, aid to the homeless, and schools – that we must do our utmost to protect. But, at least for me, there are few cuts more bothersome than the closing of public libraries.

    Sadly, these closings are happening all over the nation, including New York, Ohio, Michigan and elsewhere.

    At the same time, use of libraries has been increasing for years. In 2008, according to the Institute of Museum and Library Services, the average person visited a public library 5.1 times, an increase of almost 20 percent since 1999. Of course, this use is not equally distributed – some people visit regularly, while others not at all.

    In part, this is because many low-income Americans rely on libraries, not only for books and periodicals, but as their primary source of internet access. As a result, the number of computers in public libraries has almost doubled since 2000.

    Let’s do some simple, illustrative math here.

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