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The Red-State Teacher Revolt Has Been Brewing For Decades

Image result for Oklahoma teachers rallied at the state Capitol to demand more school funding.

Walkouts nearly 30 years ago spurred investment and optimism in education, but anti-tax ideology eventually won out. Now kids are paying the price.

Kenny Bridges spent five years as a school superintendent in Kansas, a state famous for the anti-tax, austerity agenda of its former Republican governor, Sam Brownback. Tax cuts had left the schools in such dire shape that Bridges ― the son of two teachers, husband to another and father to two more ― had trouble attracting talent. He found there was just one state from which he could reliably recruit educators, thanks to its rock-bottom teacher pay: his native Oklahoma.

Bridges returned to Oklahoma last year to become superintendent of Jay Public Schools in Delaware County. More than 40 percent of residents there are Native American, and nearly 4 out of 5 students qualify for free or reduced-price lunches. The job brought him closer to his grandchildren, but Bridges quickly second-guessed the move. What he saw in Oklahoma was even worse than what he’d seen in Kansas.

The elementary school was dirty and dilapidated. Many of the textbooks were 15 years old. First through third grades lacked a contemporary reading series, and the classrooms didn’t have whiteboards for the teachers to write on. Bridges had to cut a slow-pitch softball program to free up a few thousand dollars for such basic necessities.

“It was appalling,” said Bridges, 59. “The conditions of the facilities were almost disgusting.”

Oklahoma teachers are now in the midst of a walkout over school funding that is likely to spill into its second week. The shutdown follows a historic one just weeks ago in West Virginia, where a nine-day teacher strike led to a 5 percent pay raise for teachers and state workers. Kentucky educators have held their own walkouts this month and flooded the state Capitol to protest proposed cuts to pension plans and education budgets. Teachers in Arizona say they, too, will go on strike and close schools if the state doesn’t grant significant raises and restore public school funding to 2008 levels.

There’s a short explanation for why these low-tax, GOP-controlled states are now facing rebellion: They have slashed public school funding significantly since the Great Recession, while also pursuing many tax cuts that have benefited businesses and the wealthy. The budget shortfalls that austerity has created have left no money to pump into schools or salaries, leading to teacher shortages, overcrowded classrooms and even four-day school weeks in Oklahoma. Teachers forced to take on second or third jobs have finally decided they’ve had enough.

But the longer explanation stretches back a full generation, to when teachers in West Virginia, Oklahoma and Kentucky last walked off the job. Kentucky teachers shut down half the districts in the state in 1988 to demand more school funding. Teachers in West Virginia and Oklahoma both went on strike in 1990 for the same purpose. These were seminal revolts that today’s striking teachers still remember, either as students or young educators early in their careers.

The work stoppages led to meaningful raises and investment at the time. But the promise they held eventually lost out to the anti-tax ideology of both legislators and voters. 

JOSEPH RUSHMORE FOR HUFFPOST
The teacher walkout in Oklahoma is expected to spill into its second week with teachers refusing to work until their demands are met.

When Tish McDonald graduated from college in 1990, it was a time of great optimism in Oklahoma education. She started her career in public schools buoyed by the landmark legislation just passed in the statehouse to quell the walkout. What was known as House Bill 1017 dramatically reduced class sizes and set minimum teacher salaries, while also pouring money into early childhood programs and statewide testing. It did so by raising taxes, over the fierce objection of businesses.

“It’s how we got our jobs,” recalled McDonald, a counselor in Broken Arrow, Oklahoma. “Everyone was so excited. It was like a new day.”    

The decline that followed was so gradual that it was hard to see at first. Just two years after House Bill 1017 was enacted, voters approved a momentous ballot initiative known as state question 640. It required a supermajority of 75 percent in both chambers of the legislature for lawmakers to raise taxes again, making future hikes extraordinarily difficult. Meanwhile, many felt the full promise of the education overhaul never came to fruition.

“They said if there’s a time where there’s a crisis, we can increase class sizes,” explained John Croisant, a sixth-grade geography teacher and girls soccer coach in Tulsa, Oklahoma. “The penalties for going over weren’t enough to warrant hiring new teachers. The schools basically just had to stop following the rules, and that was 10 or 15 years ago.”

Kentucky followed a remarkably similar path. Two years after the 1988 protests, the state Supreme Court ruled that Kentucky’s education system had unconstitutionally failed to uphold its duty to provide adequate and equitable schools. The state legislature responded by passing a sweeping 1990 education reform law that raised taxes to better fund its public education system. In all, the changes generated $1.3 billion in new revenue between 1990 and 1992.

Most of it went to Kentucky’s public school system: Teachers received a 15 percent raise over the next two years, former Kentucky Education Association director David Allen said, and in the ensuing decade, the funding gap between the state’s wealthiest and poorest districts began to shrink. The Kentucky Education Reform Act drew national attention both for its increased funding and the academic programs it implemented in an effort to improve the school system.

But over the past decade, those funding increases have been slowly and steadily eroded due to round after round of spending and tax cuts. Since 2008, revenue shortfalls and a woefully underfunded pension system have combined to cause 20 separate rounds of budget cuts in Kentucky.

In inflation-adjusted terms, Kentucky’s K-12 education budget is down 16 percent since 2008, according to the Kentucky Center for Economic Policy. Its higher education budget is down 35 percent. Because school districts are increasingly relying on local funding to make up for losses from the state, the funding gaps between rich and poor counties have returned and are once again growing.

Teachers are increasingly forced to pay for their own school supplies. In some districts, educators said that schools have provided set amounts of paper at the beginning of the year and warned teachers not to run out. In most districts, there’s rarely money for new textbooks or educational materials.

“I’m using the same resources that came out in the 1970s,” said Andrew Bailey, who teaches business at Fairdale High School in Louisville, Kentucky, and is now running for a seat in the state Senate. “I haven’t had a new textbook in my classroom since 2008.”

JOSEPH RUSHMORE FOR HUFFPOST
Teacher walkouts almost three decades ago led to optimism and investment in schools, but over time funding dried up in states like Oklahoma.

Cutting taxes has proved much easier for legislators than raising them. Oklahoma lawmakers passed a series of bills starting in 2004 that reduced the state’s top income tax rate, while increasing the standard deduction and exempting capital gains from Oklahoma property sales. The state also cut the effective rate of its gross production tax on oil and gas firms, an extremely powerful lobby in Oklahoma. Meanwhile, Kentucky has handed out corporate tax breaks and created new loopholes ― for horses, for film production, for coal and alcoholic beverages ― that amount to $13 billion in annual giveaways.

It was the same philosophy that led to huge budget gaps in states like Kansas: Cut taxes and reduce government, and the economy will prosper. Instead, the states are dealing with huge budget gaps.

“In Oklahoma, we thought cutting both personal income tax and corporate taxes would bring prosperity,” said Croisant, who previously ran for an Oklahoma House seat as a Republican but recently switched his party affiliation to Democrat over the school funding issue. “We have sacrificed our schools and our kids’ futures on economic policies that do not work.”

The states are now facing the reality that they need to raise taxes to adequately fund their schools, though some of the solutions they’re looking at are regressive ones.

On Monday, Kentucky Republicans passed sweeping reforms to the state tax code that they said would generate hundreds of millions of dollars in new revenues. They used the money to help avoid the most drastic of Gov. Matt Bevin’s (R) proposed education budget cuts. But the plan reduces income taxes for the top 5 percent of Kentucky taxpayers, while relying heavily on cigarette tax increases and new sales taxes on various goods and services.

Taxes will increase for everyone else, according to an analysis from the Kentucky Center for Economic Policy. The modest education funding that was preserved in the state budget is coming first and foremost out of the pockets of poor and middle-class Kentuckians, many of whom are teachers. The Kentucky GOP’s budget still zeros out funding for new textbooks, cuts funds for preschool and afterschool programs, and leaves K-12 education with less money on a per-pupil, inflation-adjusted basis than it received in 2008.

Late last week, Oklahoma lawmakers passed two revenue-raising measures for education ― one that would require Amazon’s third-party vendors to collect sales tax and another that would expand gambling in tribal casinos. Earlier, lawmakers approved a tax on hotel and motel stays but quickly voted to repeal it. The state’s teachers union says either the governor must veto that repeal or the legislature must reinstitute the tax.

So far the teachers have not wavered on their demands, and most of the state’s superintendents, including Bridges, have stood behind them. His district has burned through its remaining snow days and will remain closed as long as necessary to boost school funding, he said. But he worries that even if Oklahoma can patch together enough taxes to reopen schools, they will find themselves in the same position in a few years, with funding that lags behind other states and a deep-seated aversion to any new taxes.

“The funding mechanism is broken,” Bridges said. “They’re going to put money in the top of the bucket, but they’re not plugging the hole.”

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Trumpcare Is Coming To Iowa, And Your State May Be Next

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Republicans have other options, but they keep refusing to try them.

Republicans could not repeal the Affordable Care Act last year, and they seem unlikely to try again anytime soon. But they are finding places where, through a combination of new state laws and new federal regulations, they can transform Obamacare’s health insurance markets into something more to their liking ― namely, markets full of cheaper, less generous plans available to people in good health.

This week, Iowa became one of those places. Kim Reynolds, the state’s Republican governor, signed a law Monday allowing the Iowa Farm Bureau to sell health plans that, in most respects, look and operate like any other insurance policies. Wellmark, the state’s affiliate of Blue Cross Blue Shield, will administer the new policies.

But the legislation declares that the new plans “shall not be deemed to be insurance,” and there’s a reason for that. Iowa’s lawmakers want to make sure the policies aren’t subject to the Affordable Care Act’s insurance regulations, including those that protect people with pre-existing conditions.

Unless a court challenge gets in the way, nothing will stop the Farm Bureau and Wellmark from jacking up premiums on people with conditions such as cancer and diabetes ― or denying those people coverage altogether. Nor will anything keep the plan sponsors from limiting or excluding benefits the Affordable Care Act considers “essential,” a list that includes treatment for mental illness, maternity care and prescription drugs.

And if the Farm Bureau and Wellmark want to impose annual or lifetime limits on benefits, they can do that, too. People who receive organ transplants or have rare genetic disorders, such as hemophilia, frequently run up bills that exceed those limits. 

So far, officials from the Farm Bureau and Wellmark have not specified exactly how much of this leeway they plan to use. But they have said that the policies will look like the ones that were available before the Affordable Care Act took effect. Those plans had substantially lower premiums precisely because they [were] not available or terribly useful to people with serious medical problems. “We do know that this may not be a solution for all,” a Farm Bureau spokesperson conceded to the Des Moines Register.

How Obamacare Unfolded In Iowa

Although the legislation’s supporters don’t typically advertise that downside, the more candid ones acknowledge it. They argue it’s a necessary trade-off because premiums for Iowans who buy coverage on their own, rather than through employers, have increased to the point that many simply cannot afford it today.

That’s true. People with incomes below four times the poverty line, or roughly $49,000 for an individual, qualify for the Affordable Care Act’s tax credits. These people represent the majority of people buying on their own, and, for them, coverage tends to be within reach and sometimes even free, no matter how high premiums get. But the tax credits get smaller at higher incomes, and those who are above the subsidy threshold must pay full price. This is particularly rough on people in their 50s and 60s because, even under the Affordable Care Act, insurers can charge older customers up to three times more than they charge younger ones.

Iowa is a state where the differential is particularly striking. A 55-year-old single man in Des Moines with an annual income of $35,000 can get coverage through HealthCare.gov and pay less than $700 in annual premiums for it, thanks to the tax credits. A 55-year-old with an income of $55,000 has to pay full price, which works out to more than $11,000 a year.

In public appearances and interviews with media outlets, including HuffPost, GOP leaders have repeatedly blamed this situation on the design of Affordable Care Act, with Reynolds calling it “unaffordable, unsustainable and unworkable.”

It’s not just that the law’s requirements have made insurance more expensive, Reynolds and her fellow Republicans say; it’s that the high prices have driven healthy people out of the market, saddling insurers with big losses. The carriers have responded by raising premiums even higher or simply fleeing, which is why this year just one carrier, Minnesota-based Medica, offers policies through HealthCare.gov.

That is, more or less, how the market in Iowa has evolved. But the problems have at least as much to do with decisions by the state’s political and business leaders as they do with the health care law’s design.

SCOTT OLSON VIA GETTY IMAGES
Kim Reynolds, Iowa’s Republican governor, says Obamacare is “unworkable.” But it has worked much better in states where officials support it.

Republican Terry Branstad, Reynolds’ predecessor as governor, was another outspoken critic of Obamacare. His administration did virtually nothing to promote enrollment, even though, given the state’s small size, adding just a few thousand people to the rolls could have made the market more stable. As of 2016, just 20 percent of Iowans eligible to get plans through HealthCare.gov had signed up, according to figures compiled by the Henry J. Kaiser Family Foundation. That was the lowest of any state, well below the national average of 40 percent.

Those numbers aren’t simply a byproduct of poor outreach. An unusually large number of Iowans are holding on to “grandfathered” or “transitional” plans ― policies that existed before the Affordable Care Act took effect and that remain cheap, mainly because they originally enrolled people who were in relatively good health. As of last year, these holdover policies accounted for more than half the total market, according to estimates by Charles Gaba, the Michigan-based policy analyst and proprietor of the website ACAsignups.net.

The Obama administration is partly responsible for this: It gave state officials discretion over whether to allow the transitional plans and for how long. But Iowa is among the states where officials have made maximum use of that discretion. One reason may be the political power of Wellmark, the state’s dominant insurer, which happens to operate the old plans.

Enrollment in those old noncompliant plans was bound to dwindle eventually, as people found different sources of coverage, either through new jobs or, perhaps, reaching the age to qualify for Medicare. Now that isn’t going to happen. Instead, a new class of cheap, noncompliant plans will be open to new enrollees. The policies will likely draw people in good health away from the policies available on HealthCare.gov, driving premiums there even higher. (It may or may not be sheer coincidence that Wellmark will operate the new plans, too.)

Iowans whose incomes qualify for the law’s tax credits may not notice the difference. They’ll still be able to get comprehensive, regulated policies through HealthCare.gov, usually at low prices. And Iowans with higher incomes, the ones who didn’t get the tax credits, will discover they have a much cheaper alternative. Many will feel genuine relief, even if the plans don’t provide as much coverage.

But some Iowans have pre-existing conditions, which means they won’t be able to buy the new plans. Others will sign up for a Farm Bureau-Wellmark policy, get sick and then require care that’s beyond what the plans cover. They will be in trouble.

And it doesn’t have to be that way.

How Iowa Officials Could Have Reacted ― But Didn’t

In Alaska and Minnesota, state officials faced remarkably similar situations, with premiums that put insurance out of reach for consumers who got little or no financial aid. They responded very differently than their counterparts in Des Moines. They created “reinsurance” pools that reimburse carriers for their most expensive-to-cover beneficiaries. Premiums fell in both states, and just this past week officials in Wisconsin said they were going to try the same thing.

Iowa’s GOP leaders could have tried some version of that. They also could have launched, finally, a serious outreach effort to boost enrollment.

“These are places where there are opportunities to grow and consolidate the risk pool,” Sarah Lueck, a senior policy analyst at the progressive Center on Budget and Policy Priorities think tank, told HuffPost. Lueck, who happens to be an Iowa native, has studied the state closely and calls the outreach failure “a huge missed opportunity.”

There were more ambitious options, too, like opening up Medicaid to individual buyers or creating state tax credits to supplement the existing federal ones. These ideas, which have come up for discussion in other states, would have entailed their own trade-offs ― including, most likely, additional government spending. That’s true of reinsurance, as well. But the sums would be relatively modest, depending on the option, and all would leave in place those protections for pre-existing conditions.

But preserving those protections is not a priority for most Republicans, at either the state or the federal level. They would prefer to reduce health insurance premiums by letting insurers cover fewer services and exclude people with serious medical problems. And they are trying their best to realize that vision ― by, for example, encouraging enrollment in short-duration insurance plans that aren’t subject to the Affordable Care Act’s requirements.

As long as the Affordable Care Act remains on the books, millions of low- and middle-income individuals will continue to get comprehensive, subsidized insurance they wouldn’t have otherwise ― and, most likely, have better access to care as a result. That’s especially true in states where leaders are more enthusiastic about making the program work.

But in other parts of the country, and for certain groups of people, buying health insurance is going to look a lot like it was before the Affordable Care Act. Cheap insurance will be available, as long as you are healthy, and it will take care of you just fine, just as long as you stay that way.

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https://www.huffingtonpost.com/entry/obamacare-iowa-wellmark-premiums-gop_us_5ac7d007e4b0337ad1e802c6

Democrats’ Chances Of Taking Over The House Just Got Better, Per New Forecast

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The outlook is rosy despite Donald Trump’s rise in the polls.

Democrats’ shot at taking control of the U.S. House of Representatives just got slightly better, according to a new analysis of polling data conducted by The Cook Political Report.

Cook announced Friday that it had changed its ratings in 13 congressional districts. In all of the new ratings, Democrats are more likely to either flip a Republican seat or hold onto one controlled by Democrats.

None of the changed ratings show Democrats taking a seat that Cook previously predicted would remain in Republican hands. Instead, they are changes regarding the likelihood that Republicans or Democrats will hold a seat.

For example, the polling numbers cruncher changed its rating for Washington’s 5th Congressional District from “Likely Republican” to the more tenuous “Lean Republican.”

It’s notable that Republicans’ hold on that district, which consists of a rural swath of Eastern Washington state, has slipped even modestly. Republicans undoubtedly do not want to have to spend money defending a seat represented by Rep. Cathy McMorris Rodgers, the fourth-highest-ranking Republican in the House.

What’s more, Washington’s 5th is usually reliably Republican. President Donald Trump won in the district by 13 percentage points.

Cook’s ratings changes are especially remarkable because they coincide with a modest increase in Trump’s approval rating. The percentage of Americans who approve of Trump’s performance ticked up from 38 percent at the beginning of January to 40 percent in April, according to FiveThirtyEight’s polling average.

And while Democrats maintain a lead of more than 8 percentage points on the generic congressional ballot, it has fallen considerably since late December, when polling showed their edge reaching well into double digits.

The trouble for Republicans is that those are still significant advantages for Democrats. A 40 percent approval rating is quite low for a sitting president less than a year and a half into his tenure.

Add to the mix a historic number of Republican retirements ― 36 so far, according to Cook ― and much higher enthusiasm among Democratic voters, and it is easier to see why Cook continues to view Democrats as “slight favorites for House control.”

Democrats need to flip 23 GOP-held seats to win back the majority. Accounting for the small number of Democrat-held seats where Republicans are competitive, the party must win 27 out of 55 contentious races, according to Cook.

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https://www.huffingtonpost.com/entry/democrats-take-over-house-ratings-changes-cook-political-report_us_5ac8e7cce4b09d0a11943f25



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