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Teacher Activists' Public Enemy Number One: Taxpayers

With this year's wave of teacher strikes, there's been a lot of finger-pointing at who's to blame for teachers' pay being so low: governors, county and city mayors, superintendents, charter schools.

But their opponents might be much more familiar than they think: It's their next door neighbors, it's their co-workers, it's their friends and family and, in some cases, it's them.

Over and over again, Americans have told their politicians that they think their state income, sales, and property taxes—those dollars that school districts are most heavily dependent upon—are entirely way too high.

Elected officials have responded by slashing away at their state and local tax rates. In 2012, according to a Pew Charitable Trust survey, states spent $9 billion less than they had the previous year, the first decline in more than half a century. That burden has fallen directly on the backs of America's public schools. 

So what's the most efficient way to get more money for schools?  Ask taxpayers to loosen up their pocket books. But that's easier said than done. 

Almost half  the nation's taxpayers today think their taxes are too high, according to a 2019 Gallup center poll. Complicating matters, almost 1 out of 3 counties in America have more residents 65 and older than they do school-aged children, according to the U.S. Census Bureau.

Fiscally conservative politicians have charged school officials with wasting taxpayers' dollars, and they've cracked down on spending by more closely dictating spending methods. 

For public school advocates, the biggest challenge in recent years is tying something as politically appealing as tax cuts to something as disasteful as school budget cuts. 

"We're finally coming out of the recession and our economy is healthy, but we're in a state where politicians have over many years divorced the conversation about tax policy from the cost of funding different parts of government," said Christine Thompson, the president and CEO of Expect More Arizona.

There are signs that the tide is turning.

As my colleague Madeline Will pointed out last year, teachers' most recent strikes have received a surge of public support, though that support could be wavering.

The Milwaukee Journal Sentinel pointed out last year that Wisconsin voters (typically hostile toward new taxes) voted through their local referendums to pour more than $1.3 billion into their local public schools' coffers, a record. 

And several Democratic governors, including in Arizona, Florida, and Georgia, last year ran explicitly on a platforms to raise taxes on the rich in order to provide billions more for schools (none of those candidates won). 

"You're seeing this confluence of larger political trends of income inequality and concerns about local government struggling after the Great Recession and not keeping teachers and school districts whole," said Tracy Gordon, a senior fellow with the Urban-Brookings Tax Policy Center. "The politics of that have been fascinating."

Following are some of the nation's fiercest fights over taxes that have severely hampered school spending:

Alaska: Alaska residents will receive a  $1,600 check from the state this year as a share of oil-related tax revenues just for living in the state. The program, known as Permanent Dividend Fund, is wildly popular, and Gov. Mike Dunleavy, a Republican and a longtime educator, ran on a platform last year of balancing the state's budget while protecting the program. His budget proposal this year will result in the state cutting more than a quarter of the state's $1.6 billion K-12 budget. The proposal has outraged the state's school officials who say if the budget is passed as it stands now, they will be forced to lay off scores of teachers and cut crucial programs.

Arizona: Arizona's Gov. Doug Ducey, a Republican, promised during his campaign to cut taxes every year that he's in office and, he's mostly delivered on that promise. In 2016 alone, the state allowed $13.7 billion to go uncollected through a series of income, sales, and other tax exemptions, deductions, allowances, exclusions, or credits, according to the state's department of revenue. Last year, the state's supreme court, because of deceptive language, knocked a measure off the ballot that would have provided more than $690 million toward schools. Ducey was re-elected last year on a similar campaign promise. His opponent, longtime educator David Garcia, ran on a campaign to increase taxes on the rich for schools. 

California: In 1978, two-thirds of Californians voted to reduce their property tax liability by more than 57 percent. Today, the state can't tax more than 1 percent of property value, a move that's severely limited the amount of money school districts receive. An effort to overhaul the state's school spending formula in 2013 has resulted in school districts receiving more than $15 billion in state revenue, but districts have used much of that money to pay down a $100 billion pension fund. Teachers in L.A. and Oakland this year have gone on strike in order to receive higher pay. 

Colorado:  In Colorado, a "Taxpayer Bill of Rights" severely restricts the amount of money the state can spend and the amount of taxes it can collect without voter approval. That's resulted, public school officials say, in a $6 billion shortfall over the last decade. A group of activists earlier this month gathered enough signatures to place on the ballot this fall Initiative 93, which, if passed, would raise the tax rate on corporations and those making more than $150,000 in order to bring more than $1.6 billion to the state's public schools.

Kansas: Kansas' former Gov. Sam Brownback, a Republican,promised after being elected in 2010 that he would start a "march to zero" campaign to rid residents of their tax burden and wean them off government services. School districts suffered—and they promptly sued, winning a series of court cases that have resulted in the state reversing some of those tax cuts. Last year, Laura Kelly, a Democrat, beat out Republican fiscal hawk Kris Kobach in the race for governor. Kelly ran on a platform of keeping taxes low, but providing schools with $300 million more in state money in order to abide with a court order. This year, despite having a $900 million surplus, the state's Republican-controlled legislature is in the process of passing a new tax cut worth more than $190 million. 

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