This page briefly explains the political situation surrounding public school financing in Kansas, brings you up to date on the latest news, and connects you with our partners working to support a strong future for public education, teachers, and school children.
In Brief: The financing of public education is a requirement of the Kansas Constitution. Despite this binding obligation, and despite numerous lawsuits, Kansas legislators and lobbyists have been continuing to slash state spending on education to fulfill their mission to shrink government. Without greater voter engagement, they may ultimately cause Kansas public schools to fail.
Moderate position: We believe that a strong system of public education, pre-K through college, is essential to the economic prosperity of our state, and requires well paid teachers who are encouraged to challenge our students, equitable opportunities for every child regardless of their situation, and rigorous academic standards free from religious or ideological influence.
The current situation for public education in Kansas is dire. Massive cuts in 2008 following the recession have not been restored by an increasingly extremist legislature. Lawsuit after lawsuit has been filed and won by the school districts, but to no avail. All the rulings agree that Kansas is failing to meet its constitutional obligation to provide suitable education funding. Yet nothing has been done.
Now, Governor Brownback and his allies among the Kansas legislators are working to staunch the bleeding from their irresponsible tax cuts by slashing education further. So far this year we have seen retro-active mid-year education cuts of over $120 million, a proposal for "level-funding" via block grants that would ignore cost of living and other needs for several years, and a re-write of the funding formula for public education.
Together, these changes are designed to make K12 allotments more palatable to the limited-government legislators and their financial patrons, regardless of whether the budget will provide the necessary tools to help every Kansas child succeed.
And that's just school finance.
Public education has also seen teachers devalued, their rights taken away, their opportunities for training reduced. A voucher program installed last year that gives massive corporate tax credits in exchange for private school "scholarship" money is being expanded this year. Rigorous educational standards are being challenged, threatening our schools' excellence. There is even an attempt to criminalize teaching anything a parent might find objectionable.
Here are some links to catch up on the latest:
- Kansas Senate passes bill easing prosecution of teachers for distributing ‘harmful material’ - KC Star
- Kansas bill limiting sex education material advances with no debate - LJ World
- Kansas House, Senate pass teacher collective bargaining compromise - LJ World
- House Ed Dismisses Educators; Sides with Lobbyist Dave Trabert - Under the Dome
- Senate bill strikes teacher protection from prosecution - CJ Online
- Midyear cut in funding puts Brownback, school districts at odds over use of reserve funds - KC Star
- Education Is Newest Target of Kansas Budget Cuts - NYT, Feb 11, 2015
- It's Up To Us - Cynthia Lane, KCKPS Superintendent
- Caught between greed and religion: the battle for Kansas public education - The Guardian, Jan 20, 2015
- Brownback K-12 plan prompts questions of court maneuver - CJ Online, Jan 19, 2015
How we got here
Conservative and libertarian party platforms have routinely balked at the cost of public education and other governmental functions. But in Kansas, we have a long history of strong public schools, a tradition that has led to the state's reputation as a compelling place to raise a family and grow a business.
That all began to change in 2008, when the great recession hit Kansas hard, and everyone in state government was asked to shoulder the burden. Public schools carried their share, with the understanding that when the economy improved, cuts would be restored, in alignment with the legislature's constitution obligation.
- Governor makes sweeping cuts - CJ Online, Nov 23, 2009
- Legislature’s 2006 Constitutional Obligation – CJ Online Dec 31, 2014
But when the economy started to recover, Governor Brownback and his allies in the legislature choose to break their campaign promises to the schools. Instead, they enacted the now infamous experimental income tax cuts of 2012. Best case scenario from this financial incentive to small businesses was to be a shot of adrenaline in the arm of the Kansas economy, and the rising tide of economic growth would float all boats.
Instead, the economic "recovery" has been a disaster on numerous fronts. Brownback's own administration has been unable to forecast revenue in any reliable way, leaving the state perpetually behind in paying its bills. Kansas has suffered from virtually no economic growth, despite a vibrant national economy, leading one to the inescapable metaphor that in the middle of this rising tide, our boat has been holed by its own captain.
The state was sued again in 2009 for failing to restore public education funding to suitable levels, as defined by the 2006 Supreme Court ruling. This new case, Gannon vs Kansas, was decided in 2014, appealed, decided again, put off, and left up in the air. Here is some background from the Supreme Court's appeal ruling.
- Original decision: Court: Kansas Legislature’s level of funding for schools unconstitutional - LJWorld, Jan 11, 2013
- After Brownback's Appeal: Court Orders Kansas Legislature to Spend More on Schools - NYT, Mar 7, 2014
- MainStream's Explainer on the Gannon decision handed down by the Supreme Court - Mar 10, 2014
At the end of the session in 2014, directly after the Court had handed down its decision, the extremists in the Kansas Legislature passed a middle of the night bill nobody was given the chance to read, that purported to fulfill the Court's requirement, but also stripped some teachers' rights and gave tax money to private schools. By most accounts it was a travesty of the legislative process.
- Kansas lawmakers pass school finance bill merging funding equity with education reforms - KC Star, Apr 6, 2014
At the close of 2014, Kansans faced an estimated $1 Billion dollar budget hole into FY2016. Gov Brownback has again turned to the public education system, the biggest user of state funds, to balance his income tax cuts. Public education in Kansas is already closing buildings, reducing staff numbers, increasing class sizes, and begging funds from their local home owners. Our K12 schools have no more fat to trim, there hasn't been for years.
As with anything political, the facts and the spin fly fast and furious. Here are a few facts that cannot be denied, no matter how education cutters try.
Kansas budget primer
Ballotpedia provides user-friendly descriptive reports on state budgets, breaking down costs and comparing neighboring states neighboring states. Kansas collects and spends about $6 billion from state funds, called the "State General Fund." This is the part of the budget that pays for state services like education and roads. This is the part of the budget everyone talks about when we have budget issues regarding schools, roads and such. The state income taxes up until 2012 had typically generated about 50% of State General Fund revenues. And, Kansas had traditionally spent about 50% of the State General Fund on public education, as do most other states.
Here's a link: "Kansas state budget" on Ballotpedia
Money for schools has been slashed since 2008, and is not going back up
You will hear the Kansas legislative leadership argue that, "school funding has increased every year under Governor Brownback." As described by Mark Tallman of KASB, dollar amounts have gone up, yes, but adjusted for inflation, the level of funding has been flat. Worse, any "increase" has been to cover pension costs and building payments. Actual money for teachers and other student services has been going down. Tallman Report, Aug 11, 2014
In addition, a report from the Center on Budget and Policy Priorities reported in May of 2014 that Kansas ranked third nationally in states that have restored the least amount of education funding since the 2008 recessionary cuts. 16.5% lower per-student than in 2008. In 2013 alone, Kansas cut funding 2.6% per-student. The report goes on to describe the serious consequences of K-12 funding cuts. "Most States Funding Schools Less Than Before the Recession," Center on Budget and Policy Priorities, May 20, 2014
Cuts to education risk the quality of public education
Some will tell you that schools can stand to trim their budgets with little effect. A report by the Kansas Center for Economic Growth says otherwise. They show the effects on schools of cuts since 2008, resulting in fewer teachers, despite more students, and more at-risk students with fewer resources, higher property taxes and smaller cash reserves. Beyond just school instruction, even sports, the arts, and other activities have been reduced by 30% of districts. "Quality at Risk: Impact of Education Cuts," Kansas Center for Economic Growth (.pdf)
The economy has improved in Kansas, but education funding is not keeping pace
The opposition will declare that the poor economy has forced cuts to education. Yes, but since then, as described by Tallman again, if education funding had kept pace with the improvements in personal income growth in the state (that is, if the Governor had not slashed income tax revenue) funding levels would be keeping pace with the best projections. We could even have funded all day kindergarten (one of the Governor's priorities, he once said). Tallman Report, Aug 11, 2014