US tax shortfalls have our public schools begging for donations

Between Trump's massive tax-breaks for the super-rich and rules like California's disastrous Prop 13, our cities perennially cash-starved and have led to the erosion of the same public services that make cities attractive to businesses (for example, the subway, public education, roads, grid and other public services that made NYC so attractive to tax-dodging Amazon for its second headquarters).

After coasting on New Deal fumes for 40 years since Reagan began the American oligarchic regression, cities are reaching a breaking-point, and parents of kids in public schools have become accustomed to a near-constant stream of fundraising emails and flyers brought home from school. Not only can this funding never bridge the shortfalls from austerity, but it converts public schools into a kind of semi-private school where hidden user-fees — in the form of "donations" — aren't really optional.

Some teachers' unions have made corporate taxation a part of the debate over school cuts: the Saint Paul Federation of Teachers talks about the decline in taxation of Minnesota's largest corporations ("Thirty years ago, Bancorp, EcoLab, Travelers Insurance, 3M and Target were taxed at 13.6 percent. That rate has been cut to 9.8 percent. Wells Fargo paid $15 million less in 2014 than they paid in 1990, when the tax rate was 12 percent. In 2014, 10 corporations paid $31 million less than they did in earlier periods") and explicitly connects those tax giveaways to the budgetary shortfalls that harm the city's kids.

It's not enough that corporations give back some of that money in the form of charitable donations: those donations always come with strings attached, shaping curriculum and activities to the priorities of corporate benefactors, and the funding can be withdrawn any time our public schools do work that cuts against the corporate agenda.

I live in Burbank, a small city in Los Angeles County known for its excellent schools (including Walt Disney Elementary, the school Disney got started to lure his employees to his new Burbank studio, ensuring they'd have somewhere to send their kids, because good education is a required component of a good business environment).

Burbank is just one of many California cities that have been hit by lawsuits brought by anti-tax extremists who want to end the common practice of circumventing of Prop 13 by transferring money from city utilities to the general treasury (the litigants say that the utilities should be run on a break-even basis and that cities should just cut services). Last year, after a settlement kicked in, Burbank found itself with the vast majority of its budget unfunded, and, facing a closure of all but one of its fire stations, police stations and libraries, along with a halt to all roadworks, closure of all city parks, and similar cuts, it announced a new sales-tax to help stanch the bleeding.

The sales-tax is a terrible answer to a worse problem: a regressive tax that will drive shoppers out of Burbank and into neighboring North Hollywood to save money on their everyday purchases. What's more, it doesn't come close to filling the gap, and as a result, Burbank has a hiring and budget freeze across all its city services. For example, our year-round, outdoor public Olympic swimming pool is now closed half the time to save money on lifeguards, these being the only variable cost in the pool's operation (the heaters, filtration, maintenance, etc are fixed costs). So we have an extremely valuable, fully capitalized city asset that has high operating costs, but which no one can use so that we can minimize lifeguard hours.

But the schools are the most hard-hit. They'll have a $2.5 million shortfall this year, and thanks to the failure of a ballot measure, they will not receive money earmarked for "attracting and retaining teachers and staff; maintaining low class sizes in grades TK-3; expanding college and career courses; increasing mental health support; and expanding instruction in science, technology, engineering, arts, and math programs."

The city's schools are now soliciting donations to make up the difference (I gave the recommended $170; if you're a Burbanker who cares about our kids and schools, I hope you will too!), but that seems very, very unlikely.

Public education is a public good. It saves millions for local businesses, who would otherwise have to pay enough for their employees to pay for private schools. It improves equal access to the tools of social mobility and national competitiveness. Starving our schools is pure looter capitalism, a bet on a future in which most of us have no productive role to play in society, except as head-count and free forced labor in private prisons.

Although cities and states across the US began to decrease funding for public schools in the 1980s by lowering corporate tax rates, local funding for schools — which get 92 percent of their money from their city and state and 8 percent from the federal government — has taken a deep nosedive since the 2007 recession. Over the last decade, plummeting property values and reduced corporate taxation in all 50 states have resulted in reduced tax revenue, causing public investment in public schools to dip. The upshot is that by the 2015-16 academic year, 29 states were providing less funding for K-12 programs than they'd provided in 2008.

Staffing took a particularly hard hit, with local school districts slashing 351,000 jobs between 2007 and 2012. Although some of these positions have since been restored, the Center for Budget and Policy Priorities estimates that the number of school employees was still 135,000 lower in 2017 than it was a decade earlier. This, despite the fact that public school enrollment has spiked by a whopping 1,419,000 pupils since 2008.

More students, combined with smaller budgets and fewer staff people, have meant that students, parents, teachers, administrators and education advocates have to contend many complex issues. While teachers in numerous states have gone on strike to oppose the relentless cuts to education, to boost salaries for teachers and other workers, and to promote a shift in priorities to elevate public well-being over corporate profits, the challenge of raising enough money to hire an adequate number of teachers, paraprofessionals, librarians and counselors — and buy school supplies — remains front-and-center. Responses to this challenge vary: Some schools organize near-constant fundraising events while others require staff to write grant proposals to fund computer labs and classroom necessities. Still others have set up foundations whose mission is to raise hundreds of thousands of dollars annually.

Bake Sales Can't Fix This: Corporate Tax Cuts Leave Public Schools Desperate [Eleanor J. Bader/Truthout]

(via Naked Capitalism)

(Image: Eli Christman, CC-BY)