Striking a Match

(Nate Billings/The Oklahoman via AP)

Teachers and supporters of increased education funding pack the first and second floors of the state capitol during the second day of a walkout by Oklahoma teachers on April 3, 2018, in Oklahoma City.

What started in West Virginia has spread. This week, partly inspired by the teacher walkouts across every county in West Virginia, teachers in both Kentucky and Oklahoma have left the classroom to protest (the issues vary state to state) low pay, abysmally low school funding, and inadequate benefits—but fundamentally, the attacks on public education.

As was much the case in West Virginia, the blame for these states’ defunding of public services like education can be placed on a history of tax cuts for corporations and the wealthy. West Virginia saw a wave of tax cuts passed in 2006, which only grew over the next decade. Soon, the cuts were reducing West Virginia’s revenue each year by $425 million.

Corey Robin, author of The Reactionary Mind, recently wrote that “teachers are starting a movement not only to raise their salaries and improve the schools, not only to reverse the assault on public education … but to confront the real governing order of the last 40 years: the Prop 13 order.”

California’s Proposition 13 was passed by voters in 1978, and cut property taxes by more than half, linked the property tax rate to purchase price instead of market value, and further limited tax increases by requiring a two-thirds majority vote in localities or in the legislature. As one could expect, Prop 13 has contributed not only to housing inequality, but to the underfunding of public services that would need tax revenue to thrive. According to Robin, Prop 13 “was the real harbinger of the country's future, a fundamental assault on the postwar liberal settlement of high taxes, high state spending, high public services, in what had once been one of the most liberal states in the country.”

Indeed, the teacher strikes now engulfing red states are a long-simmering eruption against those states’ embrace of trickle-down economics, which has deepened inequality and shredded vital public services.

Last week, the Oklahoma legislature raised the salaries of teachers by $6,100. But teachers were quick to point out that that wasn’t enough. The issue is not merely teacher salaries, though indeed those are too low—before the raise, teachers in Oklahoma earned a wage that ranked 49th in the country—but Oklahoma teachers also point to the gutting of education funding as a major impetus for their walkout.

According to Gene Perry, strategy and communications director at the Oklahoma Policy Institute, while West Virginia teachers were clearly underpaid for their work and helped inspire the Oklahoma strike, teachers in Oklahoma actually “have a situation that’s both more urgent and more difficult.” In addition to their below-average pay, education is chronically underfunded in Oklahoma. Since 2008, per-student funding in Oklahoma has been cut by more than 28 percent.

As a result, many school teachers are forced to use tattered textbooks and teach classes of as many as—or more than—40 students. Many classes and programs have been eliminated altogether, from art to foreign languages. One in five school districts across the state have implemented four-day school weeks to save money. That’s why, teachers say, they want the legislature to invest not just in them, but in the school system itself, bettering student resources and also supporting such crucial staff workers as bus drivers, librarians, and nurses.

Likely due to the sorry state of Oklahoma’s public schools, the state, like West Virginia, faces a massive teacher shortage. Three months into this school year, Oklahoma had approved more emergency teacher certifications—1,429—than the total for any other year.

The problem is that Oklahoma’s trickle-down tax code no longer generates the kind of revenue that can support adequate public services.

“Similarly to Kansas, [Oklahoma] experimented” with a package of tax cuts, Perry explains. The state drastically cut income taxes at the top, as well as eliminating the capital gains tax on the sale of Oklahoma property or stock in an Oklahoma-based company. The legislature also slashed the 7 percent gross production tax on gas and oil to 1 percent for the first three years of a well’s production. (It was later raised to 2 percent.) “There were claims that this would boost the economy and pay for itself, and that’s really not shown to be true,” Perry says. It certainly wasn’t true in Kansas, where the tax cuts were so disastrous that Republicans joined Democrats to repeal them.

Compelled by the mounting protests to give the teachers raises, the Oklahoma legislature recently raised the oil and gas tax from 2 percent to 5 percent for the first three years of well production. But even with that higher tax, Oklahoma still has some of the lowest taxes on oil and gas in the country. And the new revenue still isn’t enough to rebuild the state’s tattered school system.

The needed revenue is in reach, however, if other tax breaks can be reversed. Tax breaks for the top income bracket, which alone have cost Oklahoma $1 billion each year, remain on the books. And Perry points out that two-thirds of the benefits from the capital gains tax deduction go to just 824 wealthy taxpayers, who have incomes over $1 million. Those taxpayers, he notes, enjoy millions of dollars in tax benefits “at the expense of the services that all Oklahomans need.”  

At nearly the same time that Oklahoma teachers began their strike, so too did teachers in Kentucky commence their mass rallies at the state capital. This movement was spurred by changes to state pension plans. Last week, the Kentucky legislature voted to alter the pension system for both new and current teachers, cutting benefits and creating a market-based system for new teachers. In response, teachers left the classroom on Friday, and then spent Monday, which was for many the first day of spring break, at the capitol. Kentucky teachers do not receive Social Security benefits—they must rely solely on their pensions.

When teachers initially expressed their frustration with the plan, Republican Governor Matt Bevin said that teachers who were dissatisfied were “just throwing a temper tantrum.” Further revealing where the state stands on public services, the Kentucky legislature on Monday approved a flurry of income tax cuts for individuals and businesses. Like Oklahoma more than a decade ago, Kentucky passed a tax plan that slices the income tax rate for those at the top, which by itself will cause the state to lose more than $500 million in annual revenue. If the governor signs the bill, the burden of producing revenue will be shifted to new consumption taxes that will be levied on the poor and middle class, in the form of regressive sales and excise taxes (in this case, on cigarettes).

Jason Bailey, executive director of the Kentucky Center for Economic Policy, wrote that “By moving away from more productive income taxes to slower-growing consumption taxes, [the new tax plan] will worsen Kentucky’s budget problems in the future.”

Paired with numerous budget cuts that Kentucky has enacted over the past several years, the tax cuts for the rich may doom the state to follow in the footsteps of Kansas, West Virginia, and Oklahoma, where tax breaks for the wealthy led to heavy budget cuts for public services, which in turn led to community-supported revolts against the trickle-down policies of state government.

As Harold Meyerson, executive editor of the Prospect, recently wrote in the Spring issue, the current climate offers a significant opportunity for teachers to demand their due: Unions have greater public support than they have had in years (especially among millennials), and social media allows for mass mobilization to happen in a matter of days. Meyerson writes, “West Virginia may provide us with something of a template, if chiefly for professional workers. … Even where union membership isn’t strong, they clearly have the capacity to mobilize, and the material motivation as well.”

On the other side of the country, teachers in Arizona are also threatening to strike if they don’t see raises and increased funding for public education.

Indeed, as striking Kentucky teacher Kelsey Hayes Cotts told The Guardian, “I think West Virginia sent a signal to people that this can happen. It works and it sent a signal to the nation.”

Tax Cuts for the rich. Deregulation for the powerful. Wage suppression for everyone else. These are the tenets of trickle-down economics, the conservatives’ age-old strategy for advantaging the interests of the rich and powerful over those of the middle class and poor. The articles in Trickle-Downers are devoted, first, to exposing and refuting these lies, but equally, to reminding Americans that these claims aren’t made because they are true. Rather, they are made because they are the most effective way elites have found to bully, confuse and intimidate middle- and working-class voters. Trickle-down claims are not real economics. They are negotiating strategies. Here at the Prospect, we hope to help you win that negotiation.

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