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Why the Midterm Battleground Could Be in Classrooms Instead of Congress

Travis Brenda is not a name you’ll hear uttered by most political pundits. He may, in fact, never achieve long-term institutional power or become a household name. Yet, his recent surprise primary victory may be signaling a long-term titanic shift in the nation’s attitude toward taxes and what we are willing to pay to have a properly functioning government. This was all triggered, or at least significantly advanced, by the teachers’ uprisings sweeping the country.

Brenda is a high school math teacher. In the May 22nd Republican primary, he defeated the House majority floor leader, Jonathan Shell, who two years prior had led Republicans to a takeover of the legislative chamber and was hailed as a paragon of young Republican future leaders. Brenda challenged Shell for one basic reason: the incumbent’s support for an anti-teacher pension bill that would have reduced promised benefits.

That Brenda won running as a Republican only underscores what teachers, and other workers in the education system, have sparked. In mostly conservative states across the country, tens of thousands of teachers and support staff—defying or skirting laws barring teacher strikes—poured into the streets and amassed at state capitol buildings. Importantly, they did so almost always with strong support from parents and even many superintendents of school districts, which have been starved for funds.

The public, it seems, has woken up to a stark reality regardless of political affiliation: education, and other key government services that make for a functioning society, need money to run—and the coffers are empty.

The short-term impact of the teacher uprisings will be felt in November. To be sure, elections hinge on many factors, and it is often hard to isolate, in retrospect, one element that makes the difference between victory or defeat. Yet, taken together, the teachers revolt is arguably going to tip scores of state legislative races, and perhaps the balance of power in Congress—largely because teachers’ unions, along with other labor and community allies, are making a concerted effort to defeat anti-school funding politicians. To make an obvious point: Teachers, and their educator brethren, are everywhere, in every community, large and small. Consider this: Nearly nine million educators work for states and local governments nationwide, accounting for more than half of all public sector workers.
The teacher and public employee strike woke a lot of people up to the fact that you cannot tax cut your way to prosperity.
It would be hard to find a more conservative state than Oklahoma: Republicans control the legislature, governor’s mansion, both seats in the U.S. Senate and every House district. Tax-cutting and business-friendly policies have been an almost unshakeable article of political faith. Yet, Oklahoma was fertile ground for a revolt because its tax-cutting mania created a crisis. As the Oklahoma Policy Institute points out, “state aid funding will remain some $145 million less than it was in FY 2009, even as K-12 enrollment has grown by over 50,000 students. As important as the pay raises are for moving Oklahoma teachers towards a fair and competitive salary, schools remain in desperate need of additional operating support to reverse cuts that have led to fewer teachers and support professionals, larger class sizes, fewer courses and programs, and outdated textbooks and supplies.” It’s worth hammering home the point that despite an exploding student population, the current education budget is lower than a decade ago.

The teachers’ union in Oklahoma sees the opening, and is backing 100 candidates for state office, 48 who are union members and the rest who have ties to union members or simply support the union’s agenda. “OEA is supporting many teacher candidates this election cycle, but we will also support non-educator candidates and incumbents who show strong support for public education,” says Alicia Priest, the union’s president. “If an incumbent has a great voting record on education, we will stick by them, even in the face of an educator running against them.”  

North Carolina also has a strong teacher resistance movement. “We are doing targeted calls to districts to defeat Republicans, calling voters and focusing on education,” Mark Jewell, the president of the state’s educators’ association, told me. Those efforts may, then, tip two federal House seats to Democrats—the 13th Congressional district held by an incumbent Republican, and the 9th Congressional district where the incumbent Republican lost a primary race.

Setting aside the November elections this year, I am more intrigued by the longer-term impact of the teacher uprisings because it is possibly much more consequential for the nation’s economic future. Teachers, partly because they are held in high esteem by the public, have been able to bring focus to the Big Lie: For four decades, Republican ideologues (buttressed by a good helping of Democrats) told the people that society would be just fine without robust taxes to adequately fund government’s basic services. You know the rap: Cut taxes deeply, let the money trickle down to everyone, and, presto, big booms in jobs and economic output would follow. The Big Lie came all dressed up with a theory called “supply side economics,” which Republicans, business leaders and billionaires could foist on people to give the whole gimmick some respectability and believability.

Except supply side economics, starting with its big splashy debut at the core of Reaganomics in the 1980s, was proven, time and again, to fail. It was a theory with no empirical data proving it worked. There is virtually no evidence—none—that shows tax cuts spark job growth, certainly not tax cuts entirely structured as gross handouts to the very wealthy. But, what can be documented quite well is society’s breakdowns—crumbling roads, failing schools, poor housing, soaring healthcare costs—that all trace back to the tax cut-starving of the government.
From the outset, if its advocates were honest, it was clear that the supply side economic “theory” was primarily a political gambit. People who hated the government simply wanted to kill it—and dressing up dastardly, dumb policies with a faux economic theory was part of the scam. And it worked, for a time, at least judged by the four decades of relentless reduction in taxes at the state and federal level.

But, like many scams, eventually reality comes crashing in.

Today, the cupboard is bare. Poor teacher pay isn’t an abstract problem that can be waved away by ignorant talking heads on television. Most people will tolerate, grudgingly, crumbling roads. They may also not feel personally effected by fewer parks rangers or even a public library imposing shorter hours because of staffing shortages. But, when your kid does not have pencil and paper, or every day she walks into a crowded classroom with 35 other kids taught by a substitute each year because qualified teachers can’t afford to take a job with starvation-level wages, that’s a problem plopped right on the kitchen table at home, a problem that does not discriminate between Democrats, Republicans or independents.

Meg Wiehe, the deputy director of the Institute for Taxation and Economic Policy, the foremost tax analysis research group in the nation, thinks voters are starting to draw the connections. It’s personal for Wiehe. She lives in North Carolina where the “story is yet another example of how lawmakers have prioritized tax cuts for the wealthy and corporations over public services,” she points out. “North Carolina legislators have cut taxes four times in the last five years. When all of the tax cuts are in place, the state will have $3.5 billion less a year to spend on public services, including education. The recent tax cuts will provide the state’s millionaires with an average annual tax cut of more than $45,000, which is nearly as much as the average teacher’s annual salary of about $50,000.”

West Virginia, where the rebellion started, has been, politically, trending more Republican in elections—but it still retains a strong awareness of its historical union roots, principally because of the once-mighty United Mine Workers. “The teacher and public employee strike woke a lot of people up to the fact that you cannot tax cut your way to prosperity,” says Ted Boettner, executive director of the West Virginia Center on Budget & Policy. “I’d say at least a third of those striking were Republicans, and many of them for the first time understood that their fate was not a matter of affordability but priority.”
There is virtually no evidence—none—that shows tax cuts spark job growth, certainly not tax cuts entirely structured as gross handouts to the very wealthy.
Mark Jewell sees a new sentiment in North Carolina. “The public has always been behind public education. When you go out to western North Carolina, which is more conservative, they like their schools, and they’ve seen them decimated. We saw a lot of Republican teachers out in the streets with us. It opens up a bigger conversation that government is protecting the people, and it’s all an investment. We got the Research Triangle partly because we had a strong public-school system. The idea was you could come to North Carolina and put your child in a public school. Now businesses are saying I can’t bring my workers here if they have to put them in private schools that they can’t afford.”

Arizona’s legislature—which, except for one session, has been controlled by Republicans since 1978—has cut taxes every year since 1990, says David Lujan, director of the Arizona Center for Economic Progress who also served as a Democrat in the state House from 2005 to 2013. “Most polling that I saw during those years consistently showed majorities of Arizonans opposed to raising taxes,” he tells me. “In contrast, a number of polls of Arizona voters that I have seen in the past year have consistently shown Arizonans support raising taxes to fund state priorities like public education.” In fact, Lujan says, while this year saw a couple of small tax-cut bills pass, the major tax cut effort, which included a capital gains tax, was defeated principally because of teacher opposition.

Teachers’ union president Priest sees the longer-term shift underway. “It feels as though every day Republicans in Oklahoma have started to shift toward more moderate stances on taxes, recognizing that reasonable taxes are necessary to fund our essential state services like schools and healthcare,” she says. “As a conservative state, however, the anti-tax rhetoric still resonates with many voters. Our Platform Caucus in the legislature, which is extremely anti-tax, seems to be weakening, with many members in jeopardy of losing their seats this year. Until we see what happens in November, though, we won’t know if a real shift has occurred.”

Yet, Oklahoma has seen a fascinating turnaround. In 2012, the governor proposed entirely eliminating the state income tax, claiming it could be done without cutting services. But, in the past session, the legislature passed, with a supermajority vote, a $500 million tax increase, including tax hikes on the heretofore almost untouchable oil and gas industry. “The political makeup of the government has not changed,” says David Blatt, the executive director of the Oklahoma Policy Institute. Significantly driven by the teachers’ uprising, he says, “Lawmakers got the message that voters wanted higher teacher pay even if it means higher taxes.”
When your kid does not have pencil and paper, or every day she walks into a crowded classroom with 35 other kids, that’s a problem that does not discriminate between Democrats, Republicans or independents.
As the November election nears, Travis Brenda is busying himself with tasks left undone, most having little to do with politics. There is, for example, the unfinished addition to a garage at home. In an overwhelmingly Republican district, Brenda knows he is headed for public office, and will almost certainly have less time for personal chores once he is sworn in.

He will be representing a district where he sees a real shift. “What the legislature did in the last session was give tax cuts that were only going to go to those making $175,000 or more, and the cuts in services were disproportionately going to affect those making less than $175,000,” he says, a hit on people like many of his neighbors and constituents. “I live in a rural area, it’s a working class conservative area that still has strong conservative Christian beliefs. I’m more of a social conservative on the Second Amendment and capital punishment,” he says. “But we have to have certain services in place.”

Teachers are reminding us not only that it is a good place to live where a kid can learn but that virtually every progress society makes comes from investments—taxes—made by the public, the community. Despite the swaggering and self-serving narratives of billionaires, no fortune—not a single one—is made without passable roads leading to workplaces, the internet (started by government funding), regulations (for example, the rules governing the stock market) and, yes, public schools to educate workers in reading, math and sciences—all paid for by us, by our taxes.

We want our community to be healthy—and, so, we have invested in government-funded research in medical technologies and drugs. We want to eat food that won’t poison us—so, we have built a network of inspectors who make sure contaminated food is kept out of stores and restaurants (and when we cut the inspection regime, more people get sick). We want our community to be safe in their homes, so we make sure the firehouse down the street stays open because though we may never personally need the help, we want to ensure our neighbor can rely on that red truck careening down the street lickety-split, fire hose at the ready, if needed.

In essence, reclaiming the idea that taxes are a good thing isn’t about the specific “services” we individually get. It’s about community itself. And reminding ourselves of its value.

And that’s worth every dollar. 

Jonathan Tasini is a national political writer and economic analyst. Twitter: @jonathantasini

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