I have been reading the introduction and many of the short essays that make up David Berliner and Gene Glass’s new book, 50 Myths & Lies that Threaten America’s Public Schools. Many of the myths Berliner and Glass explore are about educating on the cheap. The book has driven me to reflect on why we are so eager to go for the “low taxes” argument these days.
Have we lost our sense of common purpose and public obligation? Have we retreated so far into our gated communities, become so blinded by privilege and inequality that we’ve forgotten the needs of other people’s children? Or maybe it’s because we see the children in public schools as other people’s children. Or we believe the myth that money really doesn’t affect school achievement. Do we think breaking the unions or going for two-year teachers trained in five-week crash courses will suffice, because schools will be less expensive if the teachers are cheaper? Maybe we are in awe of technology and believe those who tell us we can save money by cutting the number of teachers in half if we double the number of computers or tablets. Or maybe in a consumer society that worships celebrity and glitterati, we’d just rather spend taxes on sports stadiums. And anyway, children are resilient.
Such thoughts were my personal context for receiving the good news about Friday’s very important Kansas Supreme Court decision on school funding. At issue in Gannon v. State of Kansas was a 16.5 percent cut in Kansas education funding since 2008, “accelerated” according to a recent op ed in the NY Times, “by a $1.1 billion tax break, which benefited mostly upper-income Kansans, proposed by Governor Brownback and enacted in 2012.” Just over a year ago, a trial court found for the parent-plaintiffs, declaring that cuts to school funding reduced per-pupil expenditures far below a level suitable to educate children under the requirements of the state constitution of Kansas. The case was appealed by the state, and the Kansas Supreme Court released its finding last Friday, March 7.
The Education Law Center explains the significance of Friday’s decision by which the Kansas Supreme Court “upheld the right of Kansas students to educational opportunity and reaffirmed the court’s… pivotal role in upholding the Kansas Constitution.” The NY Times elaborates: “The court rejected the contention that it lacked the authority to make decisions on school funding, saying that it has the duty to determine whether legislative acts comply with the Kansas Constitution. ‘The judiciary is not at liberty to surrender, ignore or waive this duty,’ the decision said.”
The Education Law Center explains that the court upheld the principal of equity by reiterating “the Kansas requirement that all ‘school districts must have reasonably equal access to substantially similar educational opportunity through similar tax effort.'” According to the NY Times, in its decision last Friday, the Court ordered the legislature by July 1 to, “appropriate tens of millions of dollars in payments to poorer districts to make the school system more equitable.”
Also at issue in this case was the definition of adequate state school funding. The Court reiterated the need for the state to raise the level of school funding to provide a quality education for the children of Kansas, but it sent this part of the case back to the lower court to reconsider how much is enough and to give plaintiffs the opportunity to present more evidence. There is considerable speculation that Kansas will need to raise taxes to meet the requirement for equity and eventually to bring school funding to a level deemed adequate.
A publication called The Wire comments on how the decision conflicts with Governor Brownback’s agenda: “The decision is probably not so great news for Kansas Gov. Sam Brownback’s ambitions to lead an ‘American Renaissance’ by making his state a model for lowering taxes and reducing government. Brownback outlined his vision in January during his State of the State speech, where the conservative added that he believed Kansas’s governing strategy would allow people to ‘realize their God-given potential’ and that ‘our dependence is not on Big Government but on a Big God that loves us and lives within us.'”
Of course Kansas’s school funding decision will affect only Kansas. It would be nice to think that its subject—education on the cheap—is a problem only for Kansas, but that’s just not true. Cuts to education funding in Kansas are a lot like what’s been happening in my state, Ohio, where two weeks ago the Plain Dealer published a 30-year history of Ohio tax cutting: “In 1985, legislators… cut the income tax by 15 percent over three years. Effective in 1987, they cut the income tax again. In 1996, they created a mechanism to cut the income tax when Ohio runs a surplus. In 1997, they indexed the personal exemption to inflation; and in 2005, they cut the income tax by 21 percent over five years. What’s more, Ohio’s current budget, signed by Kasich last June, cuts the income tax by 10 percent over three years.” It should not be surprising that Ohio school districts are more and more dependent on their capacity to raise local revenue and that tuition has risen steadily at all of our state universities.
Paying for education is also a hot topic in New York, where Governor Andrew Cuomo refuses even to let New York City Mayor Bill deBlasio move forward with his plan to tax people in the city with incomes over $500,000 annually to pay for universal pre-kindergarten and after-school programs for students in middle school. Governor Cuomo is running for re-election, and a statewide tax cut is to be the centerpiece of his campaign.