In a recent NY Times column, Nobel Prize winning economist Paul Krugman describes the Republican budgets recently proposed in both houses of Congress: “Every year the party produces a budget that allegedly slashes deficits but which turns out to contain a trillion-dollar ‘magic asterisk’—a line that promises huge spending cuts and/or revenue increases, but without explaining where the money is supposed to come from… And the question we should ask is why. One answer you sometimes hear is that what Republicans really believe is that tax cuts for the rich would generate a huge boom and a surge in revenue…. But I’m partial to a more cynical explanation… What you’re left with is huge transfers of income from the poor and the working class…. And the simplest way to understand these budgets is surely to suppose that they are intended to do what they would, in fact, actually do: make the rich richer and ordinary families poorer… Look, I know that it’s hard to keep up the outrage after so many years of fiscal fraudulence. But please try.”
Budget proposals at the federal and state level are really abstract promises, and by the time they don’t work out as promised, months or sometimes years have passed. Apart from keeping up the outrage, it’s hard for most of us even to remember what was promised by whom, and how the math was supposed to work out. What we are left with is cuts in our local schools, which we are likely to blame on the local school board because these folks we know are easier to blame. The fact is, however, that austerity budgeting through the federal sequester—which will be coming up again this year—and through state budget cuts is causing us to lose the services we value in our communities.
Krugman, for example, points out in that same column that the Republican budget proposals now in Congress result in, “savage cuts in food stamps, similarly savage cuts in Medicaid over and above reversing the recent expansion, and an end to Obamacare’s health insurance subsidies. Rough estimates suggest that either plan would roughly double the number of Americans without health insurance.” And as this blog frequently reminds you about public school funding, according to the Center on Budget and Policy Priorities, “At least 30 states are providing less funding per student for the 2014-15 school year than they did before the recession hit.” “Adding to states’ struggles, federal policymakers have cut ongoing federal funding for states and localities, thereby worsening state fiscal conditions. For example, since 2010, federal spending for Title I — the major federal assistance program for high-poverty schools — is down 10 percent after adjusting for inflation, and federal spending on disabled education is down 8 percent.”
To understand how this is working out in practice, you have only to look at Kansas, a fiscal disaster in process where Governor Sam Brownback has created a fiscal crisis by slashing taxes. Because public education funding is always a big line in the state budget (State constitutions make states responsible for what is usually about half of public education funding.), when state budgets collapse, public schools are inevitably hurt. Andrew Ujifusa, Education Week‘s “State EdWatch” columnist, describes what just happened in Kansas: “The Kansas Legislature has approved a plan to end the state’s current K-12 funding formula and replace it with block grants, a move that would also cut general state aid to public schools…. That would mean Kansas spending on schools would no longer take into account districts’ enrollment, demographics, or transportation needs. The idea to shift K-12 spending into block grants was initially proposed by Gov. Sam Brownback, a Republican who is dealing with one of the more serious budget crises in the nation. At the start of the year, the state faced a $280 million budget shortfall for this fiscal year (fiscal 2015) and a $436 million shortfall for fiscal 2016, after the governor signed significant tax cuts into law earlier in his tenure. Brownback advertised the block-grant proposal as a way to increase spending flexibility for districts, although local K-12 officials are not pleased with the $51 million in expected state aid that they would lose for fiscal 2016 under the plan.”
Ujifusa adds that the situation in Kansas is complicated by the finding of a lower court last December that the state’s K-12 school funding was already (before the new block grant reduction) “inadequate from any rational perspective.” The 3rd Judicial District Court ordered the state to increase spending per-pupil from $3,852 to $4,654, which would add $548 million in state aid as a remedy for long-standing inadequate school funding.
Don Hineman, a Republican member of the Kansas House of Representatives notes in his legislative update that although the school funding formula is scheduled to be rewritten during a two year period while the block grants are in place, “During the floor debate on the bill I observed that we were being asked to tear the school funding formula out of the statute book, crumple it up, throw it away, and replace it with a blank sheet of paper which someone will fill in later. In my opinion that is a tremendous gamble. It is a gamble for rural schools which may never again see weightings for low enrollment or transportation. It is a gamble for schools with large numbers of students in poverty if the at-risk weighting ceases to exist. And it is a gamble for districts with large numbers of non-English-speaking students if that weighting goes away. The bill was put on a very fast track which I frankly view as an abuse of the legislative process… It is revealing that the only proponents of this bill in the committee hearing were the Kansas Chamber of Commerce, Americans for Prosperity, and Kansans for Liberty. These are the same groups who have testified this session against any proposals to raise taxes to fill the state’s fiscal deficit, claiming that any hole in the budget should be filled via budget cuts.”
It is reassuring that on March 17, Kansas’ Attorney General Derek Schmidt filed an appeal asking the Kansas Supreme Court to review December’s lower court ruling that Kansas’ level of state funding for public education was, prior to being cut again by $51 million in the new block grant law, already unconstitutionally low.
You very likely do not have children in the public schools of the state of Kansas, but Kansas is an emblem of what is being proposed in budget after budget across the states and by Republicans in budgets already proposed in both houses of Congress. Conservatives always say tax cuts will pay for themselves, but when they inevitably don’t pay for themselves, the solution is always reducing essential services rather than restoring taxes—which may have been the intention from the beginning. As Paul Krugman asked in his recent column: “Look, I know that it’s hard to keep up the outrage after so many years of fiscal fraudulence. But please try.”