In a year of odd phenomena, none is odder than this: Across the nation's midsection, schoolteachers are suddenly fed up with their government's treatment of education and educators, and Republican governors and legislatures are capitulating right and left, even raising taxes to mollify them. West Virginia, Kentucky, Oklahoma, Arizona. Not long ago, it happened in Kansas and Louisiana. Even in Mississippi, where teachers work for less than everywhere and are getting out, legislators are trying to find ways to keep them in the classrooms without giving them a raise. They are offering some teachers tax deductions like they would a hedge-fund manager.
What in the world is going on? All of these states have been our confederates in the struggle of the past 40 years to raise our education systems from the bottom of all the national rankings — teacher salaries, school spending, student achievement, graduation rates, college-going and, of course, per-capita income, which goes hand-in-hand with all those rankings.
Twenty thousand West Virginia teachers went on strike in February and said they would not return until they got a 5 percent raise, their first raise in years. Legislators tried to pass a 4 percent raise, but the teachers said 5 percent or nothing. Legislators and the governor agreed and then had to promise a 5 percent raise for state employees as well.
Oklahoma's striking teachers were even madder. Their salaries had fallen well below even Arkansas's, the state wasn't providing supplies or current textbooks, and classrooms were crowded. The Republican legislature and governor quickly capitulated and gave them a $6,000-a-year raise, which will put them above Arkansas again. To pay for the raises, legislators agreed to raise production taxes on oil and gas, although they already were among the highest in the country, almost as high as Texas', and also to make motorists pay higher gasoline taxes. (A cut in production taxes helped create the budget crisis.) The teachers said the raises were not enough and that the state needed to pay for books and school necessities and to relieve the overcrowded classrooms.
Teachers are picketing or walking out in Kentucky and Arizona, demanding higher school funding. Legislators and governors, long contemptuous of teacher activism, are scrambling to mollify them. When the public school legions get behind the teachers they can make a political force almost as potent as Grover Norquist.
Besides the teacher revolt, what else do all these states have in common with each other and with states like Kansas and Louisiana that went through the same crisis the previous five years?
You guessed it. They all climbed on the tax-cut train that passed through the South and border states in the last decade. If you slash the taxes of corporations and high earners, the theory goes, they will expand their business and create more jobs, other businesses will move to the state to take advantage of the lower taxes and the state will wind up with far more money in the treasury. But, as all those states discovered, it doesn't work that way. State taxes are spent locally and it all winds up in the pockets of local people. Cutting state or local taxes rarely has any stimulus effect.
West Virginia, under a Democratic governor and Republican legislature, slashed the corporate tax rate from 9 to 6.5 percent and ended its business franchise tax. Its growth pattern didn't change but it couldn't afford to keep up its schools. Everyone is familiar by now with the bold experiments in Kansas and Louisiana, where brash young Republican governors promised utopia if taxes were slashed dramatically. Instead, public services and even their credit ratings crashed.
Oklahoma and Arizona eliminated estate taxes, cut energy production taxes and income taxes, especially those on capital gains. Same story. New Atlantis never arrived but budget shortfalls did, and they got bigger and bigger.
State governments have one giant obligation: education. When money falls short, teachers and the kids take the sacrifice. In Arkansas and many other states, education is the one function spelled out in the state Constitution that must be funded properly. Arkansas fought that battle for 30 years until, led by Gov. Mike Huckabee, it raised a bundle of taxes and set up a funding system to guarantee a constitutional school system in perpetuity.
Except it didn't. Each year, the legislature and the governor ignore the court mandate and statutory law and the schools slide a little farther behind. In the fiscal session that just ended, Governor Hutchinson and the legislature quietly abrogated the Lake View mandate of the Supreme Court again.
The governor has a strategy. Cut business and wealth taxes a little at a time over years, skirt the school-funding mandate a little at a time, avoid the big sudden crisis like West Virginia's and Oklahoma's and still, some day, businessmen will respond and prosperity will bloom. Meantime, he is credited with being a tax-cutter, a label without which no Republican today can hold public office.