Kansas Scrounges, Creates Short-Term Funding Fix to Keep Schools Open

What just happened in Kansas vindicates school finance advocates who argue for the role of the judiciary to protect the rights of our children. Sam Brownback, the governor of Kansas, and the Kansas legislature have been experimenting with radical tax cuts for several years now.  Not surprisingly, Kansas has gone broke, and not surprisingly school funding—the most expensive line in most state budgets—has suffered.  But at the end of May, the Kansas Supreme Court told the executive and legislative branches of Kansas state government that despite tinkering and despite the legislature’s pretense that it had provided enough money and distributed it more fairly  (see here and here), the system has not been protecting the rights guaranteed to children and school districts under the Kansas state constitution.

The Kansas Supreme Court ruled that unless, by June 30, the legislature made significantly more money available to the school districts that lack the capacity to raise enough local revenue, schools could not open across the state in the fall of 2016. Late Friday, in response to this ruling, the legislature, meeting in special session, found an extra $38 million for poor school districts.  Hunter Woodall and Miranda Davis, report for the Kansas City Star: “A sense of urgency came from the Supreme Court’s warning in its recent ruling that schools might not be able to reopen after June 30, if lawmakers didn’t make further changes. Many have programs, serve meals to poor children and provide services to special education students during the summer.”

The Senate passed the school funding measure 38-1, the House voted 116-6, and Governor Sam Brownback has now signed it. The NY Times quotes the response of Alan Rupe, attorney for the school districts who had brought the Gannon v. Kansas school funding lawsuit: “This amended legislation represents a compromise which will satisfy the court and allow schools to open.”  The legislative compromise rejected an earlier proposal to take money from all of the state’s districts to boost funding for poor districts by $13 million.

There does remain a smaller element of Robin Hood in this plan.  Three wealthy Kansas City suburban districts will lose some of their state aid, according to the Kansas City Star: “Blue Valley would lose about $2.4 million, Shawnee Mission about $1.4 million and Olathe about $75,000.”  The superintendent of Blue Valley, Todd White responded by affirming the common good: “When it comes down to it, we have to have a ‘we before me’ attitude.”

The Kansas City Star reports that bulk of the money will come from the sale of the Kansas Bioscience Authority for $13 million, and from the state’s K-12 extraordinary needs fund, motor vehicle fees, and the state’s national legal settlement with tobacco companies.  John Hanna, writing for the Associated Press emphasizes the challenge of finding money in a state where tax cuts have resulted in an overall revenue shortage: “With Kansas facing an ongoing budget crunch, lawmakers avoided increasing overall state spending by diverting money from other corners of state government to schools…. The state’s fiscal woes complicated education funding issues.  Kansas has struggled to balance its budget since GOP lawmakers slashed personal income taxes in 2012 and 2013 at Brownback’s urging to stimulate the economy.  State tax collections have fallen short of expectations 10 of the past 12 months….”

In a followup analysis, Hanna continues: “Kansas is bracing for more contentious legal and political fights over education funding even after legislators approved a narrow, short-term fix to satisfy a court mandate and avoid a threatened shutdown of the state’s public schools.  Having directed lawmakers to make education funding fairer to poor areas, the Kansas Supreme Court will next consider the larger issue of whether the state spends enough overall on its schools.  The justices could rule by early next year; a trial-court panel said the state must increase its annual aid by at least $548 million… Kansas is likely to remain mired in the budget problems that have plagued it since Brownback persuaded lawmakers to slash personal income taxes in 2012 and 2013.  Any large increase in school spending… would require lawmakers to reconsider his signature tax cuts.”

Hanna continues: “Education funding debates often pit poor districts and small, rural ones against affluent districts in the Kansas City suburbs of Johnson County, the state’s most populous county.  Educators across the state argue that regional tensions would ease if Kansas increased its overall spending on schools.  But Brownback, who blames the state’s ongoing fiscal woes on larger regional and national economic issues, said the budget will remain ‘very tight.'”

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