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The K-12 Conundrum: Americans Want More Education Funding, But Not Higher Taxes

The public is willing to raise some taxes, but only ones that create unreliable revenue streams.

education-funding-poll
(David Kidd)

SPEED READ:

  • 60 percent of parents and 75 percent of teachers say education funding is too low.
  • Nearly equal shares say they would rather see cuts elsewhere than raise taxes for more school funding.
  • People are most willing to raise so-called sin taxes on alcohol, cigarettes and gambling. 
  • But sin tax revenue isn't always sustainable or spent on schools.
 
Most people believe their public schools need more money. A new survey, however, illustrates just how wide the gap is between wanting more funding and being willing to pay for it.

According to the 51st annual PDK Poll of the Public’s Attitudes Toward the Public Schools, 60 percent of parents and 75 percent of teachers say their community’s schools don't have enough money. But a nearly equal share of those groups would rather see funding cuts elsewhere than raise taxes to pay for more.

This dichotomy frustrates public school advocates. In recent years, teachers across the country have gone on strike and protested to highlight stagnant or reduced school funding. In a special section on the topic, last year’s poll showed widespread support among parents for striking teachers. And for the 18th year in a row, Americans this year named lack of funding as the top issue facing schools.

Still, direct tax hikes remain largely unpopular. “It really calls into question the extent to which Americans in general will pay out of their own pockets for those things they think are important,” says Joshua Starr, CEO of PDK International, a professional organization for educators. “It boils down to whether we’re willing to give a couple extra bucks to support bread-and-butter issues like schools. That’s not part of the American ethos, and that’s a problem.”

There is one exception: A majority of respondents expressed a willingness to raise so-called sin taxes, which are typically viewed as an optional expense. About 9 in 10 adults supported using revenue from state lotteries and sports gambling for public schools. Three-quarters of respondents favor using taxes on legal recreational marijuana as a school funding source.

That’s how Oklahoma -- home to some of the nation's least-funded schools -- was able to raise education funding. For years, a proposed sales tax hike to boost school funding failed. But after a teacher strike in 2018, the legislature passed a tax increase on cigarettes, gasoline and oil extraction.

Relying on sin taxes has pitfalls, though.

For starters, the new revenue isn't always spent on schools. It often just frees up general fund money to be spent elsewhere. (Of course, that doesn't stop sin tax supporters from using the possibility of more education funding as a selling point for things like recreational marijuana and gambling.) 

In Maryland, casinos have generated more than $3 billion for the Maryland Education Trust Fund since 2008. But according to a recent WUSA9 analysis, the way the law was written, schools were not funded beyond what was established under the state-mandated funding formula. Had all the casino money gone to schools, the trust fund would have seen another $1.9 billion, according to data from the Maryland Department of Legislative Services. Instead that money went into the state's general fund.

In Colorado, marijuana tax revenue helps pay for schools. But the money mainly funds maintenance and construction, and is just a drop in the state’s education spending bucket. Colorado’s NPR station reported that total marijuana tax revenue for public schools was $90.3 million in 2017-2018. That’s 1.6 percent of the state’s $5.6 billion public school budget.

Another problem with relying on sin taxes is that the revenue is unpredictable.

A recent report by the Pew Charitable Trusts and the Nelson A. Rockefeller Institute of Government noted that revenue from medical and recreational marijuana has been volatile, making “states that have legalized it wary of making strong claims about revenue potential.”

The report also found that revenue growth from taxes on alcohol and gambling is unlikely to be sustained due to changes in rates, demand and competition. Revenue from tobacco taxes, for example, recorded the most drastic decline on average between 2008 and 2016 for states that did not increase tobacco taxes. That's bad news for Oklahoma, where cigarette tax hikes may lose their earning power as the country trends toward smoking less.

What’s more, Oklahoma is still 15 percent below its pre-recession funding for schools, says David Blatt, executive director of the Oklahoma Policy Institute. “Last year’s teacher walkouts sparked lawmakers to finally take action on our longstanding funding crisis,” he said. “It was a start, but only a start.”

Liz Farmer is a former GOVERNING fiscal policy writer.
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