The Work Ahead to Educate Kansas Children

There is still hard work ahead for the Kansas Legislature, and for voters, before Kansas can claim to be providing an excellent education for ALL Kansas children. Last week, the Kansas Supreme Court confirmed this, releasing a long-awaited ruling on the Constitutionality of the public school funding plan passed by the Kansas Legislature this year. (Spoiler: not even a little bit Constitutional.)

The ruling is long (and fascinating, if you want to wade through it) but the Kansas Association of School Boards has released an excellent summary.

Read on for our take.

School funding needs to be solved

The 2018 legislative session, and the primary and general elections that will follow it, should already be on your radar. Many issues remain unresolved for Kansas' future, including gun safety, health care access, revenue reform and public school funding. The Legislature will have to tackle them in 2018.

Some very conservative state legislators may have hoped that they were done with school funding, that the plan put to the Court would pass muster, but very few honestly believed it would. The public school funding bill that was passed was thought to be good, policy-wise, but severely underfunded. And the Courts agreed, as vehemently as an 88-page legal document can. They state in no uncertain terms that the plan did not provide for adequate funding levels, nor did it offer mechanisms to ensure that what funding there was would be distributed equitably.

The Court has given the state until April 30, 2018 to present legal arguments describing legislative changes made to address the Court's issues. That means the Legislature has until April 30 to pass a new bill to fund public schools. The Court then promises it will provide a ruling by June 30, 2018, just in time for the new budget year on July 1.

Most telling may be the "dissenting" opinions at the end of the ruling. To wit, they don't dissent about the Constitutionality question. They all agree wholeheartedly that the law is neither adequate nor equitable. Rather, they dissent that the state should have any leeway to providing a remedy. One suggests the state should have to provide a solution by year-end. Another notes that the state has a history of providing inadequate solutions at the last possible moment, causing the litigation process to drag on and on. The ruling also points out that this litigation has been in process since 2010, seven years ago, and that waiting another few years will only increase the number of Kansas children who have received an unsuitable education in that time.

This is a problem that needs to be solved, once and for all.

Why is school funding so important?

Every Kansas child deserves a suitable education, and educating every Kansas child is a monumental, expensive task. But every Kansan benefits, economically, socially, and morally, from having a well educated population that has the best chance to succeed. Education is the engine of future economic growth, social equality, and healthy communities, not trickle-down economic theories that have failed repeatedly since the 1980s.

Is education such a low priority for those aligned with Governor Brownback that they do not see this? How can they not understand that educating Every. Kansas. Child. should be the number one priority of government? Why do they refuse to understand that a suitable education is complex and expensive?

It should not be that hard to understand. Here are some simple numbers. The last time Kansas funded public education without a pending lawsuit was in 2008. Funding at that time was $4,400 per pupil for a number known as "base state aid." It is a useful measure for comparison. The current plan, as passed by the Legislature, and being used by schools right now, allocates $4,006 per pupil. Yes, Kansas is funding students at a lower rate than it did almost a decade ago. And if you account for inflation, and you should, since this is the real world, the 2008 per pupil amount would be $5,058.

The math is complicated by the differences between rural and urban, rich and poor, privileged and in need. It's too complicated, some have argued. We should make education more efficient, others say. Funding private education with tax dollars is the best solution, they suggest. But we cannot run education as a business, because profit and loss implies acceptable losses, and in this case, those are children. That's not acceptable. For seven years, Kansas has been operating education by skimping on excellence and fairness. And children have been slipping through those cracks. That's not acceptable.

This must be fixed.

Revenue reform will be required

As soon as the Court's ruling came out, Kansas state Senate leadership released a statement to the effect that "Senate Republicans remain committed to providing every Kansas Student with an exceptional education, however, raising taxes to fund this unrealistic demand is not going to happen." Unfortunate phrasing aside (an exceptional education is an unrealistic demand?), their stance reminds us of their actions last year. When their inadequate tax plans were defeated, they declared that no other laws would be worked until tax reform was done, effectively taking their ball and going home.

This is not governing. Governing is hard work that requires compromise, compassion, and dialogue, and must be done where the public can see it.

The Legislature did just pass tax reform in 2017. It ended Brownback's "March to Zero" experiment, and rejected several attempts by "Taxes are theft!" extremists to hamstring state finances with "fair tax" and "taxpayer bill of rights" proposals that only sound good in soundbites. The Legislature also reinstated a third tax bracket to distribute the burden of income taxes more equitably (read, not letting the highest earners piggyback off middle class tax rates), and they raised those income tax rates, though not as high as they were in 2012, when Brownback threw them out.

But that didn't raise enough money to even cover the hole the state is in with regard to roads, pensions, and services, much less provide for the adequate funding our schoolchildren require.

The Legislature will have to find a way to raise more revenue, and that will require the support of Kansans who understand the importance of government, and the need to participate in society to ensure everyone can succeed.

Do this, now

Here at MainStream, we intend to pace the Legislature every step of the way, reporting, analyzing, and holding them accountable.

But you need to participate, too. You can do more than just vote in 2018, you can follow them with us, speaking out and standing up when you're needed.

Right now, you can contact your state legislators and let them know you support a Constitutional school funding plan. Find your legislators at:

Get informed, get involved, make a difference. Do more than vote.

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