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12 states spend less on schools now than before the recession

Teachers' strikes follow drop in school funding
  • 12 states that made especially deep cuts after the Great Recession haven't yet restored school funding
  • Texas slashed school funding the most, with per-pupil spending 20 percent lower than in 2008
  • Teachers are earning less in 42 states than they did a decade ago

The U.S. economy has largely recovered from the Great Recession, but one segment is still struggling to regain its financial footing: America's public schools. 

State funding for public K-12 schools remains lower than before the recession in a number of states, including five where teachers have gone on strike in the last year, according to a new analysis of state budgets and Census data by the Center on Budget and Policy Priorities, a left-leaning think tank. It examined 12 states that made especially deep cuts after the recession and found that their spending still hasn't caught up.

It's likely that more states will experience teacher strikes given the ongoing struggles with funding in many states, said Michael Leachman, senior director of state fiscal research at CBPP.

The findings help shed light on why teachers across the country -- from West Virginia to California -- have taken to the picket lines since early 2018. In some cases, states that cut spending on their public schools failed to boost it again even as their tax revenues improved. That's leading to a host of challenges for students and teachers in underfunded schools, from teacher shortages to crowded classrooms. 

"A sizable number of states have slipped backwards," Leachman said. "These trends are very concerning."

Increases in state funding can boost the outcomes for children, which in the long term benefits the economy, the CBPP noted. Low-income children whose schools received a 10 percent bump in per-pupil spending before they enrolled in public school ended up earning 10 percent more when they reached adulthood, according to a 2016 study from researchers at Northwestern and University of California, Berkeley. 

"State funding increases can improve educational outcomes for children," Leachman said. But states that cut funding are at risk of "weakening their futures."

More funding, but still below 2008

Teachers have gone on strike in five of the 12 states that cut their funding deeply after the recession. In four of them -- North Carolina, Oklahoma, West Virginia and Arizona -- lawmakers responded by increasing their funding for public schools, but the CBPP found the increases weren't enough to bring spending above prerecession levels. 

"Oklahoma last year saw the largest increase in education spending among all those who cut the most," said David Blatt, the executive director of Oklahoma Policy Institute. "The bad news is we're still second on this list and still have a 15 percent decline in state funding from before the recession."

Declines in teacher pay 

Six of the states that experienced teacher protests or demonstrations in 2018 are among the 42 that are paying their educators less than they earned in the 2009-10 school year, the CBPP found. 

Mississippi's teachers are earning 16 percent less, the steepest pay decline among all states, while teachers in Colorado and Oklahoma earn about 15 percent less than in 2009-10, the study found. Teachers went on strike in the latter two states in the last year.

Local funding

State funding represents the largest chunk of money for school budgets, at 47 percent, while local revenue -- such as funds provided by local property taxes -- delivers 45 percent. The remainder stems from federal spending. 

Even though some local communities have stepped up to fill the gap left by declines in state funding, that raises questions about unequal spending between low- and high-income communities. Because local school funding is provided by property taxes, it means wealthier communities have a deeper pot of funds for their schools. 

Here are 12 states where per-student state funding, adjusted for inflation, declined from 2008 to 2019. Asterisks indicate where teachers went on strike.

Texas: 20 percent

Oklahoma*: 15 percent

Alabama: 15 percent

Kentucky*: 13 percent

Kansas: 12 percent

Michigan: 9 percent

West Virginia*: 8 percent

Utah: 8 percent

North Carolina*: 7 percent

Arizona*: 6 percent

Mississippi: 3 percent

Idaho: 3 percent