New Study: After Years of Brownback Tax Cuts, Kansas Schools Need Massive Infusion of Money

You may remember that when he was governor of Kansas, Sam Brownback and the legislature conducted what Brownback called a live experiment with trickle-down economics. Massive tax cuts in 2012 and 2013 depleted the coffers of the state, until finally last June (2017)  the Republican-dominated legislature rebelled and raised taxes. Brownback vetoed the tax increase, but the legislature voted to override Brownback’s veto of their action.  There was hope that the new taxes would restore enough money that the state could afford to provide a range of expected services and at the same time invest in the state’s long-neglected public schools.

Then, in the first week of October (2017), the Kansas Supreme Court ruled on the appeal of the long-running school finance lawsuit, Gannon v. Kansas. The justices found the state’s school funding once again unconstitutionally inadequate and inequitable, ordered the legislature to pass a new funding law by April 30, 2018, and gave the state until June 30, 2018 to demonstrate that a remedy is in place to rectify past problems or shut down the state’s schools.

At the beginning of January (2018) before Brownback left Kansas—having finally been confirmed by the U.S. Senate to become President Donald Trump’s ambassador at-large for religious freedom—the Governor delivered a 2019 budget proposal for Kansas. He angered the legislature by proposing a $600 million increased investment in education over five years while assuming, in his favorite trickle-down style, that growth in the state’s economy will pay for increased spending on education without a tax increase.  Legislators complained that Brownback’s plan will make the legislature look bad if Brownback’s faith in trickle-down once again fails to work. The argument in Kansas hasn’t been so much about the need for more investment in schools but instead about how to pay for it. Basic state school aid per pupil in Kansas has dropped from $4,400 in 2009 to barely over $4,000 today.

The Republican dominated legislature responded by commissioning a costing-out study: they hired an expert to tell them what they would need to spend to comply with the Supreme Court’s demand for a remedy by April 30.  The Associated Press‘s John Hanna describes the surprise legislators received last Friday when the consultant presented her study: “Improving Kansas’ public schools could cost the state as much as $2 billion more a year…. The broad conclusions about the state’s overall spending on schools are in line with arguments from four school districts that sued the state over education funding in 2010. The Kansas Supreme Court ruled in October that the more than $4 billion a year the state spends on aid to its public schools isn’t sufficient under the Kansas Constitution. Some Republican lawmakers were stunned after the report was presented to a joint meeting of House and Senate committees on education funding.  Republican leaders commissioned the $245,000 report, and some GOP lawmakers, particularly conservatives, hoped it would provide evidence to bolster arguments that Kansas already spends enough or close to enough. The opposite happened.”

The plan would be phased in over five years.  The consultant describes the level of investment for producing three different scenarios: “(T)he least expensive would cost $451 million more a year, an increase of about 10 percent.  The most ambitious option—boosting the graduation rate and vastly improving student scores on standardized tests—would result in the $2 billion increase.”

The Kansas costing-out study is an econometric, outcomes-based report that projects what would have to be spent for particular levels of improvement in test scores and the high-school graduation rate. Econometric studies are the way it’s done these days. I think most people can more readily understand an inputs analysis. What would it cost, for example, to lower class size especially in the poorest communities?  What about more counselors?  What about a more advanced math and science curriculum and added history and literature classes at the high school? What about school music programs?  What about adding all-day Kindergarten or enriched preschool?  These are the sort of investments school districts will have to make to upgrade schools across the state of Kansas.

It is helpful to translate school funding into concrete expenditures made by school districts. Examining added investments by school districts in Kentucky, New Jersey, and Texas after school finance remedies were put in place after court decisions, a 1999 National Research Council report, Equity and Adequacy in Education Finance, did exactly that.  Here is how school districts spent the added money allocated by their state governments: for improving staff salaries, hiring more teachers, instituting staff development to improve teaching, purchasing materials and resources including technology, enhancing programs for at-risk students, extending the school day, adding health and social services, and upgrading facilities.  (Equity and Adequacy in Education Finance, pp. 121-127)

In a companion volume, National Research Council writers address the inequitable distribution of state funding that has also been at issue in Kansas: “Achieving the goal of breaking the nexus between family background and student achievement requires special attention….” “Looked at from a national perspective, families living in the poorest districts—those with the highest poverty levels and the lowest median incomes… had lower per-pupil revenues than the richest districts.” (Making Money Matter, pp 46-47)

In 2005, Peter Schrag, the longtime editorial director of the Sacramento Bee, wrote a profound book on school finance. The subject was timely in California in the context of the school finance case of Williams v. California. During the trial in that case, students had testified about an infestation by rodents at San Francisco’s Balboa High School.  Schrag examines school funding lawsuits in eight states and concludes: “No parent or student should have to offer scientific proof that attractive schools with working toilets and decent classroom environments are more productive than those without. None should be asked how they knew that having rats in their classrooms impaired their ability to learn. Nor should any school have to justify good libraries and courses and after-school programs in art or music with test scores and college attendance rates.”  Schrag quotes the New Jersey Supreme Court in the case of Abbott v. Burke: “The costs of changing teacher ratios, increasing average teacher experience, teachers’ educational background and, of course, increasing average staff salary, are staggering… For instance, a large urban district with 8,000 pupils and a staff ratio of one teacher per thirty pupils would have to budget an extra $900,000 per year to bring that ratio down to one per twenty-five…. If these factors were not related to the quality of education, why are the richer district willing to spend so much for them?” (Final Test, p. 230)

The new costing-out study released last Friday in Kansas has jolted legislators, because nobody expected its conclusions.  Here is the Editorial Board of the Kansas City Star: “A long-awaited school funding study released Friday in Topeka was expected to endorse the long-held conservative view that there’s no correlation between student performance and the money spent on public schools.  After all, conservative Republican leaders had hand-picked the consultant—Lori Taylor, a Texas A&M University professor—to take a fresh look at Kansas school spending.  Democrats and moderate Republicans who back more education spending feared a low-ball recommendation…. But in a stunning development, Taylor’s study sent a torpedo into bedrock conservative doctrine, concluding that a link does indeed exist between spending and a student’s educational attainment. She said lawmakers must spend another $1.7 billion over five years  to reach performance targets or an additional $2 billion to deliver enhanced educational outcomes. Until Friday, the conventional wisdom in the statehouse was that lawmakers would look to increase school funding by $600 million over the next few years…  Based on this report, $600 million may not come even close to doing the job.”

The Kansas City Star Editorial Board quotes Lori Taylor’s report: “The analysis finds a strong, positive relationship between educational outcomes and educational costs.”

The editorial continues: “This amounts to a breathtaking repudiation of the long-standing conservative argument that there’s no link between outcomes and spending… Until Friday, many lawmakers were confident that they could cough up another $600 million for schools without a tax increase… (T)he prospect of yet again raising taxes to cover years of underfunding and neglect of public schools is once again staring them in the face.”