Deep tax cuts threaten Kansas schools and Gov.’s re-election

Deep tax cuts threaten Kansas schools and Gov.’s re-election

(Kan.) Nearly a decade has passed since a landmark ruling determined lawmakers were inadequately funding public schools – but the promise of those extra dollars may be as elusive as ever.

While most districts nationally are gaining back fiscal ground lost during the recession, public schools in Kansas have been forced to deal with a 2 percent rollback during the past two years – this coming on top of a 13 percent reduction in state support imposed between 2005 and 2009.

And the immediate outlook might be even bleaker given Gov. Sam Brownback’s extremely conservative position on spending and taxation.

“We’ve seen our districts struggle and we’ve certainly seen our class sizes increase,” said Cheryl Semmel, executive director of the Kansas School Superintendents Association. “I think everyone has tried to keep the cuts as far away from the classroom as possible – but at some point, if you are forced to make enough cuts, everything you do will impact student learning.”

Like many states, educators in Kansas have a long and often contentious history with the Legislature over school funding. Perhaps the most important of these challenges, the Montoy case – originally filed in 1999 and upheld six years later by the state supreme court – found the Legislature had “failed to make suitable provision for the finance of the public schools” as required by the Kansas Constitution.

Efforts were made in 2005-06 to increase spending and improve equity between districts, but much of that was washed away in the recession. Most recently, the Republican-led Legislature adopted Brownback’s austere spending plan in 2012 that drastically reduced taxes in hopes of jump starting the economy.

Unfortunately for schools as well as all other public services, the tax cuts so far have only resulted in an enormous drop – $338 million – in revenues so far this year.

“It’s been seven years since the Montoy ruling,” said Semmel. “Most of our kids that are coming out of elementary school now have not had the benefit of the increased spending that we had immediately following Montoy.”

She noted that those benefits might be hard to quantify for students in the higher grades and the impacts might not be as severe. “But now we are talking about kids who have come through the system who, quite frankly, have never had the benefit of the support systems schools have historically had in place,” she said.

K-12 schools in Kansas rely on about 53 percent of their funding from the state with local property taxes providing about 35 percent and the federal government close to 12 percent. Cash-strapped school boards have the option of going to the voters to raise local taxes but in the current political and economic environment, not too many districts are likely to consider that option.

Lawmakers have offered a long-shot solution by convening a state commission to study and make recommendations for the better use of state school funds. The Student Performance and Efficiency Commission will look at local school district operations including the potential for shared resources, administrative costs and variations for student performance and spending.

Expectations are not high that the commission will find hundreds of millions of dollars in savings and the dilemma facing schools may soon become a major political issue for the governor who faces reelection in the fall.

A poll released just last week from SurveyUSA showed Brownback trailing Democratic House Minority Leader Paul Davis by 8 percentage points – a 1 percentage point increase for the challenger since June. It is important to note that among voters who said that education funding is the most important issue in the race, Davis leads Brownback four-to-one.

The loss of the education community might prove pivotal because it is likely to cost him support among the state’s teachers. A key component of his agenda this session was legislation that eliminated administrative appeals teachers could demand before they could be fired – an anti-tenure bill that was widely criticized by the teachers unions.

Brownback has argued that the existing budget increased funding by more than $130 million over last year and points to funding set aside for bonuses for master teachers and technical education.

“State funding for K-12 has increased every year I have been in office,” Brownback said in an interview last week with the Topeka Capital-Journal. “More teachers are in the classroom. Teacher salaries have increased. At the same time we've been able to make strategic investments in programs with results that are measureable and broadly supported.”

Many educators don’t share the governor’s perspective.

“It is difficult as a teacher in Kansas not to feel like we have been collectively slapped,” Jeff Baxter, the 2014 Kansas teacher of the year, told the Garden City Telegram earlier this month.

“Teachers are angry,” Ellen Stevens, a fourth grade teacher in the Kansas City area told the paper. “All we're trying to do is help these kids have a good future, and for that we are accused of being union thugs, lazy and incompetent. It's really difficult.”

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