$2 billion

You may have heard that the Kansas Legislature on Friday received the report it paid for on the cost to adequately finance public schools in the state. You may have heard this because the numbers were eye-popping, between $400 million and $2.1 billion (with a B). It should be said that many expected the number delivered to be much lower. The report was commissioned by Republican leadership, already keen on spending less on public education. One of the people hired to deliver the report previously low-balled a similar report in Texas. The political rhetoric that surfaced this weekend has been pretty spectacular. And ridiculous.

The Report

Briefly, the report delivered Friday called for a range of funding solutions. One the low end, $400 million additional would maintain current educational attainment, it said. To achieve higher attainment levels, in line with what the Kansas Supreme Court has designated is required to fulfill the "adequacy" requirement in the Kansas Constitution (the "Rose Standards"), would range from $1.8 to $2.1 billion dollars additional, annually.

Friday's report had several "clerical errors" that cast doubt on the results, but the revised report submitted Monday morning fixes those errors without changing the overall recommendations.

Some of the findings:

  • A strong and statistically significant link between higher funding and higher student outcomes.
  • Most Kansas schools are highly efficient.
  • Teacher pay must be increased, especially in some communities.
  • Numbers do not include transportation or meals.
  • Even lowering graduation rate goal to 90% would cost $1.4 to $1.6 billion to achieve Rose Standards.
  • A long term commitment to funding is imperative for districts to be able to plan.
  • An annual inflation adjustment is highly recommended.

The Reactions

It is fair to say that the conservative leadership of the Kansas Legislature, who insisted on spending $200,000+ for this study, has been universally disappointed in the results of their investment. They have begun to spin the report as being "academic," and flawed. They have reverted to sounding the klaxon against "tax increases" to drown out arguments about the importance of excellent public education in the overall success of the state.

Here is a sampling.

Senate President Sen. Susan Wagle—who voted to fund the study—left the Friday presentation early, and then put out this statement, in which she said, among other things, that the Court's demands to add more funding "will not be possible without implementing another major tax increase on all Kansans and without continuing to short other state needs such as healthcare, social services, transportation, and higher education, all in the favor of schools."

Sen. Jim Denning, who has pushed to delay work on school finance to wait for this report—which he voted to fund—is now quite critical of the report, accusing the authors of double counting factors, of making a purely "academic" report with no basis in reality, of including factors other studies (many more than a decade old) did not include, etc.

Sen. Ron Ryckman, Speaker of the Kansas House—who also voted to fund the study—complained about the lack of constitutional protections for other areas of state government, similar to Sen. Wagle's issues.

Here's what's wrong with these arguments:

  1. Taxes today are still below where they were before Brownback. After the debacle of the Brownback tax cuts, which proved disastrous to Sen. Wagle's list of state services, and to schools, tax reform did not restore taxes to that level.
  2. Where does this concern for transportation, higher education, healthcare and social services come from? It has been absent the last five years, when economists, engineers, academics, patient advocates, social workers, and teachers have been pointing out how tax cuts continued to short those areas of the state's obligations.
  3. Not "all Kansans" would need to be taxed. In fact, the Brownback cuts, which put us in this mess, slashed taxes on the highest earners in Kansas by consolidating their tax bracket with that of the middle class and lowering it to that level. Tax reform measures restored the higher tax bracket, but declined to raise taxes significantly on those earners. Rather than tax those wealthy earners, Kansas chose instead to tax food at historically high levels, burdening lower and middle income Kansans. Now, talk in the Legislature centers on whether to raise property taxes, because taxing "all Kansans" is more palatable to them than taxing just the high earners.
  4. Public education is a constitutional right of Kansans. An excellent public education that gives students opportunities. That leads to an educated population, a workforce ready to improve the economy of the state, a society that stays in Kansas, works for Kansans, and makes lief better for "all Kansans." This is not a zero-sum calculation, we can give our kids a decent education, and provide a strong health and social safety net, and maintain our state's infrastructure.

Where are we now?

The Legislature still owes the Kansas Supreme Court a public education finance plan that meets its requirements by April 30. The Kansas attorney tasked with defending the law had asked for such a bill by March 1 to be able to prepare for the Court. And the Legislature has planned the end of this session for April 6. To date, there is no such legislation.

Something is going to have to give.

Let your legislators know where you stand. Find who represents you at ksleglookup.org, and get in touch with them.

Thank you for all that you do. Change begins with you.

It starts here. Do more than vote.

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