Federal Educational Investments Are Essential

Our guest author today is Stan Litow, a professor of Public Policy at both Duke and Columbia University. He is a former deputy chancellor of schools in New York City, former president of the IBM Foundation, a trustee of the State University of New York, and a member of the Albert Shanker Institute’s board of directors. His book, The Challenge for Business and Society: From Risk to Reward, was published last year.

The Trump Administration’s recent education budget proposal got a lot of attention for trying to eliminate all federal support for the Special Olympics. In response to bipartisan opposition to this foolish proposal, the cut was restored. This is good news, but the bigger story of the Administration’s proposed cuts to educational programs—and their impact on the most critical issues facing the nation—got lost in what appeared to be a positive result. The cut to the Special Olympics was misguided, but hardly unique. The overall cuts represent 12 percent of the education budget, or approximately $7 billion.

Among the most misguided cuts are those that would negatively affect college affordability, including reductions in student aid programs such as College Work Study, as well reduced funding for teacher professional development. As with the Special Olympics, there are advocates on both sides of the aisle who are likely to fight hard to reverse these cuts, but reversing the cuts would only represent a modest victory. They would not solve the underlying problems exemplified by the cuts.

Economic Shocks And Attitudes Toward Redistribution

In the wake of the financial crisis that began in 2007, as well as the subsequent recession, there has been a great deal of attention paid to income inequality. Specifically, there was a pervasive argument among many Americans that the discrepancies in income between the top and bottom are too large, and that the fruits of economic growth are predominantly going to the highest earners (the so-called “one percent”).

Among those who believe that income inequality is too high, the solutions might include policies such as more progressive taxation, stronger regulation, and more generous policies to help lower income families. That is, they might generally support some increased role for government in addressing this issue. Insofar as individuals’ attitudes tend to respond to changes in their own circumstances (e.g., Owens and Pedulla 2013), as well as to overall economic conditions, one would possibly expect an increase in support for government efforts to reduce inequality during and after the financial crisis.

We might take a look at this proposition using a General Social Survey (GSS) question asking respondents to characterize their support (on a scale of 1-7) for the statement that the government should reduce income differences between the rich and poor. The graph below presents the average value of this scale between 1986 and 2014. Note that higher values in the graph represent greater support for government action.

A Myth Grows In The Garden State

New Jersey Governor Chris Christie’s recently announced a new "fairness funding" plan to provide every school district in his state roughly the same amount of per-pupil state funding. This would represent a huge change from the current system, in which more state funds are allocated to the districts that serve a larger proportion of economically disadvantaged students. Thus, the Christie proposal would result in an increase in state funding for middle class and affluent districts, and a substantial decrease in money for poorer districts. According to the Governor, the change would reduce the property tax burden on many districts by replacing some of their revenue with state money.

This is a very bad idea. For one thing, NJ state funding of education is already about 7-8 percent lower than it was in 2008 (Leachman et al. 2015). And this plan would, most likely, cut revenue in the state’s poorest districts by dramatic amounts, absent an implausible increase in property tax rates. It is perfectly reasonable to have a discussion about how education money is spent and allocated, and/or about tax structure. But it is difficult to grasp how serious people could actually conceive of this particular idea. And it’s actually a perfect example of how dangerous it is when huge complicated bodies of empirical evidence are boiled down to talking points (and this happens on all “sides” of the education debate).

Pu simply, Governor Christie believes that “money doesn’t matter” in education. He and his advisors have been told that how much you spend on schools has little real impact on results. This is also a talking point that, in many respects, coincides with an ideological framework of skepticism toward government and government spending, which Christie shares.

Basic Facts About Who Pays State And Local Taxes

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).

Recent Trends In The Sources Of Public Education Revenue

Every year, the U.S. Census Bureau issues a report on the overall state of public education finances in the U.S. There is usually a roughly 2-3 year lag on the data – for example, the latest report applies to the 2011-12 fiscal year – but the report and accompanying data are a good way to keep an eye on the general education finance situation both in individual states as well as nationwide, particularly among those of us who are somewhat casual followers (though it bears keeping in mind that these data do not include many charter schools).

One of the more interesting trends in recent years is the breakdown of total revenue by source. As most people know, U.S. public school systems are funded by a combination of federal, state and local revenue. Today, although states vary considerably in the configuration of these three sources, on the whole, most funding comes from state and local revenue, with a smaller but still significant contribution from federal government sources (total revenue in 2011-12 was about $595 billion).

But there has been some volatility in these relative contributions over the past few years (at least the past few years for which data are available). The graph below presents the percent of total elementary/secondary education revenue from federal, state and local sources between 1989-90 and 2011-12.

Are Americans Really Unwilling To Pay More To Prevent Education Cuts?

In a speech earlier today, President Obama asserted, “We will not cut education," and implied that doing so would be “reckless” and “irresponsible." The president’s heartening remark, however, comes as  education funding is taking a massive hit at the state and local levels in most states, including New Jersey, Pennsylvania, Florida, and, yes, Wisconsin. The damage will likely last for many years.

In all the debate about what to cut and how deeply, there seems to be an assumption that an increase in revenue for education – to avert these massive cuts - is not an option. Although there are exceptions, very few Democratic governors are supporting tax increases to make up their states’ shortfalls, while Republicans governors are, of course, adamantly opposed.

Among many members of both parties, the presumption seems to be that raising revenue is simply a non-starter, because the American people are unwilling to pay more.

I’m not so sure. There is some evidence to suggest that this assumption deserves a second look.

Are Public Employee Unions To Blame For States' Budget Crises?

A disturbing number of people are blaming public sector unions for states’ current budget crises (also here, here and here). Their basic argument is that unions have seriously exacerbated budget shortfalls because a significant proportion of state spending is tied up in employee compensation, and unions, via collective bargaining, increase salaries and benefits.  As a result, so the line goes, unions have created unsustainable expenses for state governments in a time of declining or still-recovering revenues.

Needless to say, the relationship between unions and state revenue/spending is complex.  The claim that unions are responsible for state budget gaps (or at least for larger gaps) is therefore extremely difficult to examine, especially during a fiscal crisis. Nevertheless, we can take a quick, modestly rigorous look. 

There are 30 states that provide collective bargaining rights for state employees, virtually all of them via state laws. One way to evaluate the merit of the accusations above is to see whether states that allow collective bargaining have more severe budget problems than those that do not.

Evasive Maneuvers

In a previous post, I showed how the majority of funding for education and other public services comes from state and local tax revenue, and that low-income families pay a disproportionate share of these taxes (as a percentage of income). 

One of the reasons why this is the case is that many corporations – especially the largest and most profitable – have managed to avoid paying most of the state taxes that they owe (45 states have some form of business tax).  State corporate income taxes (CIT) are levied on business profits – so, for the most part, it’s only the highest-income individuals who are liable (through the businesses they own) for corporate taxes (the top 10 percent wealthiest individuals own about 90 percent of all corporate stock).

A 2005 joint report by Citizens for Tax Justice and the Institute on Taxation and Economic Policy took a close look at state CIT payments by 252 Fortune 500 companies between 2001 and 2003. Their findings were astounding. These corporations were able to shelter roughly two-thirds of their actual profits from state taxation, while 71 of them paid not a penny in state taxes during at least one year between 2001 and 2003.  During the years they paid no taxes, these 71 companies reported $86 billion in profits to their shareholders.

Who Pays For Education?

In education debates, especially these days, there is endless talk about spending – how to spend money, what programs to cut, and how to increase the bang-to-buck ratio. This is not surprising: In 2007-08 (the last year for which national U.S. Census data are available), we spent almost $600 billion. That’s quite a figure, and we all have an interest in spending that money wisely.

What is sometimes surprising is how little we hear about how we get that money. Of course, we all know that our tax dollars fund our public schools, and most of us know that state and local revenue is the primary source of this funding (about 90 percent; on average, about half state and half local). Less commonly-known, however, is who pays these bills – who bears the largest share of the tax burden, relative to their income? At the federal level, taxation is largely progressive, which means that, on the whole, higher-income families pay a larger percentage of their earned income to the federal government than lower-income families. This is, very simply, due to the fact that higher income brackets are taxed at higher rates.

But when it comes to state and local taxes, the picture is different. The poorest families pay far more of their income than the richest (i.e., taxes are regressive). In other words, the money that funds public education is a burden disproportionately borne by poor and middle-income Americans. And the lower your income, the more of it you pay. Given this situation, combined with a fiscal crisis that threatens to linger for several years, the best solution – raising revenue through a more equitable system – may be the only one not on the table.