More Money Is Never Enough
As the saying goes, the more things change, the more interest groups demand money for public schools. Lawmakers in many states are completing their state budgets for next year, and local teacher unions and other associations are calling for more taxpayer money—taking a cue from their national offices.
Commenting on President Donald Trump’s federal budget proposal earlier this year, Randi Weingarten of the American Federation of Teachers said, “The budget takes a meat cleaver to public education.” Sticking to the theme of sharp objects, the National Education Association’s Lily Eskelsen García said the plan released earlier this week will “slash public schools.”
These claims ignore two important details. First, 90 percent of all education funding comes from state and local sources, so Trump’s budget deals with a fraction of school budgets. Second, average total spending per pupil has increased 66 percent since the 1980’s, after adjusting for inflation, irrespective of the changing federal outlays over the years.
Still, in our states of Arizona and Washington, unions and their allies are following the script from national headquarters. Arizona’s union is calling for “immediate and significant public education funding.” The Arizona School Boards Association says the state needs “adequate” funding for transportation and more money for school buildings.
Remarkably, Arizona lawmakers completed the state budget two last weeks ago and included $68 million for teacher pay raises, as well as a $163 million increase for K-12 schools above inflation. Gov. Doug Ducey led an effort in 2016 to pass a ballot measure directing $3.5 billion more to public schools over the next decade. Yet, three weeks ago, school district lobbyists still filed a lawsuit demanding more money.
In Washington State, lawmakers are in a special session to finish the budget. Officials are still working on the fallout from a 2007 lawsuit (McCleary v. State of Washington) by the Washington Education Association (WEA) calling for more education funding. The state supreme court already ruled in favor of the teachers' union, and in the two budgets since this decision, funding per student has jumped from $9,000 to $12,600.
During this period, the WEA’s annual budget, collected from mandatory dues taken from teachers’ paychecks, has grown from $26 million in 2011 to $38 million in 2014, the most recent figures available. It’s worth noting that the union is a major contributor to the campaigns of the supreme court justices that ruled in their favor in McCleary.
This funding increase is still not enough for the union. Washington is one of just seven states without a personal income tax, and unions are leading an effort to change that. Senate Majority Leader Mark Schoesler (R-Ritzville) said, “The real debate for 2017 isn’t about the schools—it’s about an income tax.”
In a threat to student learning, the teachers' union has planned strikes across the state even though such actions are illegal under state law. School-closing strikes, hostile lawsuits and campaign payments to judges – these are the sharp objects the WEA uses against school children and their families.
Unions and other associations object to ideas outside of funding increases, such as more educational options for families. The WEA has filed two unsuccessful lawsuits to close charter schools in the state. The Arizona School Boards Association and teachers' union have tried to stop families from using education savings accounts, flexible spending accounts that parents use to buy educational products and services for their children. These groups oppose giving students the option to decide where and how they learn, even if a child isn’t succeeding in their current school.
Arizona lawmakers expanded the accounts this year to give every child the option to use an account. Student eligibility is phased-in over four years until all 1.1 million students in the state will have a choice to use an account.
National and state education associations won’t say how much money is enough. And lawsuits and strikes aren’t going to help children with their coursework. Students need quality learning options, no matter their ZIP code. Special interest groups should make this a priority instead of higher taxes.
Jonathan Butcher is education director at the Goldwater Institute and senior fellow at the Beacon Center of Tennessee. Liv Finne is the director of the Center for Education at the Washington Policy Center.