A few weeks ago, the Economic Policy Institute released a report based on data from the Bureau of Labor Statistics that illustrated a troubling finding: the United States is experiencing a 307,000 job shortfall in public education positions. The extreme shortfall in public education jobs first took hold when the recession hit in 2007. Not only do we have 60,000 fewer public educators than before the recession, but the teacher shortage is also not keeping up with increasing enrollment sizes as population grows, meaning that fewer educators are teaching larger classes with less pay. Given the last year and change of widespread teacher strikes over poor pay, low quality school conditions, and lack of funding, it’s clear that there’s a massive school-funding problem in public education.
One massive factor? The supermajority, an obscure state and local tax policy. Kim S. Rueben, a Sol Price Fellow and Project Director of the State and Local Finance Initiative at the Urban Institute argues that the supermajority is a major part of the school funding problem is that in many red states, like Oklahoma, where teachers were instructing 30+ large classes, taping back together decades old textbooks, and taking home three-digit paychecks. Much like the supermajority in the Senate — which some presidential candidates like Senator Elizabeth Warren have called to abolish — it requires that any legislative body have two-thirds or more of a vote to raise revenue or taxes.
“What state and local governments do is pay people,” says Rueben. “Seventy-five to 80 percent of [revenue] is going to salaries and benefits. There isn’t much other stuff. If you want your schools to do a good job, you need the money. How do we get higher salaries? You need tax revenue.” Tax revenue, however, is difficult to find in states that have slowly cut it over decades — and even harder in states with asymmetric supermajorities.
According to Rueben, there are a few different reasons legislative bodies enact supermajorities: to pass a budget, to raise taxes at the state or local level, and also to pass debt, like local bond measures for school buildings or library construction. Today, according to the National Conference of State Legislatures, 16 states require supermajorities to raise revenue. Many of those states, which include Arizona, Arkansas, Florida, Kentucky, Louisiana, Nevada, and Oklahoma, were in the news last year when teachers went on strike in coordination with their unions to draw attention to decades of low pay and budget cuts.
Reuben argues that states with supermajorities basically bias the system to cut taxes, and not raise them. Sometimes, this leads government to make dumb decisions. In the case of Oklahoma — where some of the most dramatic stories and widespread and successful organizing came out in 2018 — their government cut taxes over decades. But they didn’t just stop revenue altogether: they cut those taxes because they were making so much in severance taxes through the oil and gas booms that they felt they didn’t need to tax their citizens anymore. It worked until it didn’t work.
“If you decide you want to cut taxes, it’s easy to cut taxes,” says Reuben. “Part of the problem with Oklahoma was that they cut taxes a bunch, thinking that they could continue living off of oil and gas money.” The oil and gas states didn’t suffer so much during the recession, however, but later on did when the oil and gas economy busted in 2014 and 2015. As a result, public services floundered.
“Gas prices fell,” says Rueben, “so it wasn’t profitable to [tax on extraction] and that affected revenue. When those dried up, you’re just seeing schools do worse and worse, until you get to something like the strikes, where people are recognizing the fact that you actually need money, and you want to send your kids to school more than four days a week.”
For a while, Oklahoma was making at least somewhat of a rational choice: the funds they received from extraction taxes were so significant that other taxes could be lowered and/or eliminated. The problem is that when those funds dried up and didn’t have local or state taxes or a rainy day (otherwise known as budget stabilization funds) fund to help fill that funding gap, which led even more draconian cuts in education and other services.
Raising taxes in Oklahoma is extraordinarily difficult when you need a two-thirds majority, and raising taxes during a recession, when people are making less money, beyond being politically difficult, does not provide the same amount of revenue as aggressive taxes during the prosperous times. The problem with tax cuts and and asymmetric supermajority rules are compounded by balanced budget amendments.
Balanced budget amendments exist in every single state except for Vermont. The government can only spend as much money as they take in through revenue — making it impossible to deficit spend, i.e. spend more than they get in citizens taxes. In times of economic trouble, this compounds financial problems as social programs get cut. The government cuts back spending even more, doesn’t raise taxes (doing so will get them kicked out of office), teachers, schools, and students suffer, and the economy flounders. Rinse and repeat.
This reality is backed up by the fact that there are fewer teachers today than there were a decade ago. Positions were cut and never re-added; pay was cut and never rebounded. In order for public education funding to change in red states or in any state with a supermajority requirement, there needs to be a massive amount of public pressure (like in the form of a strike) in order to change the funding situation and increase taxes that pay teachers.
Politicians, especially in the red states, run on not raising taxes for their constituents even when, in fact, taxes might need to be raised from a budgetary perspective. Arizona, per Reuben, ran into this problem when they needed to increase school funding. (Governor Doug Ducey signed a pledge last year to give teachers a 20 percent raise after lawmakers refused to reinstate about $1 billion in school funding that had been cut over the last decade, and increase school funding.)
“Arizona has a fairly large senior population. They actually had to pass laws in such a way that exempted people who were over 65 from having to pay the property tax surcharge [for school funding],” she says. “They were having a hard time getting those taxes approved if people thought it wasn’t going to their kids.”
If states don’t go that route — letting senior citizens not pay for public schools, for example — they often do coalition building work and end up passing funding or revenue measures that also include allocations for new buildings or other projects that might not have anything to do with education at all. This makes the budget bigger, which, realistically, makes no sense from a fiscal conservatism perspective. Why would, for example, a fiscal conservative who backs a supermajority requirement because raising taxes is bad get behind a system that often requires more and more bloated budgets in order to give lawmakers a reason to sign onto said budget?
“We have certain organizations — and certain think tanks — and politicians who pledges not to raise new taxes. The argument is that the government just wastes money. These rules get into place with the presumption that the government is going to take all of your money,” says Rueben. “There’s not a whole lot of evidence that that’s sound.”
The argument toward not raising revenue is that government can be run lean. But lean means not giving teachers fair pay.. Cutting taxes doesn’t make classrooms more efficient — it saddles teachers with more students, fewer resources, aging and outdated textbooks, less funding to buy school supplies, and less time to spend with each student. Not to mention paltry salaries.
In short, these issues make teaching look like an extremely unattractive prospect for a career, and it’s not hard to see why. After all, before the strikes in Oklahoma, education budgets had been slashed by 28 percent (something that needed to pass by a simple majority, rather than raising the education budgets, which would have needed a 66 percent vote), 2,000 Oklahoma teachers were emergency certified (aka they had no education training) because of unfilled positions, districts had to convert to four-day-school weeks, more than $200 million in cuts over the last decade, and many teachers were taking home pay that was below double the federal poverty line.
So it’s clear to see that in Oklahoma — and Arizona, West Virginia, and across the country, where there should be more than 300,000 additional public education teachers — it doesn’t make sense to become a teacher. You won’t get paid. You won’t be set up for success in the classroom. And unless, if you’re in a state with a supermajority, you and your union go on a massive strike, it’s hard to say that anything will change, funding wise, from traditional party politics.
There is hope on the horizon: the labor movement is alive and well in the education sphere, and teachers are more than willing to fight for fair pay, smaller classrooms, and a better education for their students. If any change is going to come in tax policy and in teacher pay, it will be a movement led by teachers, for teachers. Politicians likely won’t pick up the slack.