News & Politics

5 Right-Wing Governors Gutting Schools to Fund Prisons, Tax Breaks for the Rich...And a Bible Theme Park

When state after state slashes education dollars, we see what matters to them--and where they spend while cutting schools tells us even more.

It's budget time again, and with the economy still in rough shape, that means it's time for governors to show where their priorities are.

It's probably not surprising that right-wing governors claim they can't fund education properly when revenues are low—we've been seeing this happen for years, even before an actual economic crisis knocked states sideways. But cutting funds to schools isn't the only option for states even if they do have to balance their budgets. There are many other places to cut—and of course, they have the option of raising taxes, something the conservative crowd simply refuses to do.

Like any other choice made by a politician, budgeting is a decision laced with ideology. When state after state slashes education dollars (and often at the same time funnels more of the money they do spend to private companies running charter schools, or gives it away as vouchers) we see what matters to them. And when you take a look at the programs that get funded, or the people who get fat tax cuts as money is drained out of the schools, well, you see what matters to state governments.

Here's a look at five of the governors taking money away from their states' kids, and a look at some of the things they are still funding.

1. Pennsylvania

Governor Tom Corbett set off a wave of anger this week when his new budget hit—and slashed a full $1.2 billion from pre-kindergarten through 12th grade education. According to the Education Law Center, that's taking a full 15 percent out of the budgets of the state's already-struggling schools.

That would be bad enough. But, as the Law Center noted, “the cuts fall hardest on school districts with the greatest student poverty.” That means schools in poor districts will get less funding, while wealthy districts lose very little. So the Reading School District in Berks County, which has a frighting 90 percent student poverty rate, loses $1,083 per student, while the Wyomissing School District, with only 22 percent student poverty, is losing just $112 per student.

Corbett expects the schools to make up the funding cuts, naturally, by cutting teachers' pay and firing more experienced teachers—which probably means bigger classes and more work for those who remain with lower salaries.

And then there's the state's universities, which already took a 20 percent hit last year. According to the Delaware County Daily Times, Corbett's cutting $230 million from Penn State, Pitt and Temple—an “astounding” 25 percent.

Meanwhile, what doesn't get cut in this budget? While schoolkids in poor districts will see their teachers laid off and their classes get bigger, Corbett's pumped up funding for prisons (11 percent) probation and parole (6 percent) and state police (6 percent). Guess we know where he expects those kids to wind up.

2. Ohio

Ohio governor John Kasich should be used to protests by now—he certainly has seen enough of them since he decided to attack his state's public workers last winter. So although candidates for the state legislature joined Occupy protesters in decrying Kasich's budget cuts to education while eliminating the estate tax for the state's wealthiest, it doesn't seem to have made much of an impact.

According to Policy Matters Ohio, the state's budget (signed this summer) takes $1.8 billion in funding away from Ohio's elementary and secondary schools over the next two school years. The new report noted that 65 percent of respondents to its survey of Ohio school districts say they are facing budget shortfalls as a result of state budget cuts—that means pay freezes, pay cuts, not replacing teachers who retire; 45 percent report “reductions in force”--layoffs.

In his State of the State speech, Kasich touted education as a solution to the state's struggles, but it's hard to see how the state can educate its way out of anything when school districts keep facing cuts. (He urged universities to “commercialize” their research, which is a fancy way of saying produce things they can sell to corporations or that will entice grants from corporate America.)

If Kasich really wanted to demonstrate a commitment to education, he could change his mind about the state's estate tax, which hit the 7 percent of wealthy Ohioans who inherit more than $338,333, and will be abolished next January. That'd save about $250 million a year that could go to the far more than 7 percent of Ohioans who make use of public schools.

3. South Carolina

Kasich's elimination of the estate tax is certainly one example of policies that favor the 1 percent and leave students out in the cold, but South Carolina governor Nikki Haley has gone Kasich one better and proposes to entirely eliminate the corporate income tax in her state. That would cost nearly $140 million in the first year alone—so Haley's taking a chunk of that cash out of public schools.

Her budget, according to Columbia, SC news channel WLTX , cuts “a key funding stream” for public schools, one that primarily goes to teachers' salaries. And another local station, WJBF, reports that while Haley cut public school teachers' incomes, she includes an extra $10 million for charter schools. So that's less money for public employees, more money for private companies using state education funds.

John Ruoff, policy analyst and founder of South Carolina Fair Share, pointed out that eliminating the state corporate tax is likely to have little impact on job creation—but a big impact on much-needed public programs like the schools. "Governor Haley ought to be a lot more concerned about how we develop a state that businesses want to come to," Ruoff told Tax Analysts. That means having decent infrastructure and a well-educated workforce, not just a zero tax rate.

4. Alabama

In no state is it so abundantly clear that the governor is prioritizing other spending over education than in Alabama, where Governor Robert Bentley has proposed taking $230 million from the Education Trust Fund and putting it into the General Fund, which pays for prisons, courts and other parts of the state government.

Henry Mabry of the Alabama Education Association (a teachers' group) told the Birmingham News, “The governor's actions are absolutely outrageous and do nothing but cut education to bail out the prison system.” And Bentley seemed to inadvertently echo Mabry when he defended his move by saying, “By doing that, we will not have to let a single prisoner out of prison.”

He also wanted to shift Medicaid costs for children's healthcare into the education fund, an additional drain of about $185 million, and his budget for 2013 cuts 1,381 public school teachers, principals and other staffers, and takes $41.1 million from universities and $5.4 million for two-year colleges.

Bentley's plan is so outrageous that it's drawn condemnations from both parties in the state legislature—including the chair of a committee it would need to pass. "It's not going to fly. It's dead," Rep. Jim Barton, R-Mobile, told the Birmingham News.

5. Kentucky

Just to note that it's not just Republicans who cut education dollars and spend on ridiculous things instead—Kentucky governor Steve Beshear is a Democrat, albeit one who brags on his official Web site about “trimming the state workforce” and “reforming” child welfare. Yet his budget offered up a 6.4 percent cut to higher ed and a decrease in funds to K-12 students as well.

But that's not the best part. Travis Waldron at ThinkProgress explained that the governor did preserve a $43 million tax break for a “Bible-themed amusement park — which will include a 500-foot by 75-foot reproduction of Noah’s Ark,” as well as $11 million in spending on the highway interchange that will be near the park.

Waldron pointed out, “...lawmakers could jeopardize Kentucky’s substantial gains in K-12 education and ensure ballooning tuition rates at its colleges and universities, all while they preserve tax breaks for what critics have dubbed the “Ark Park.”

Sarah Jaffe is an associate editor at AlterNet, a rabblerouser and frequent Twitterer. You can follow her at @seasonothebitch.