It Will Take Years to Recover from What’s Been the Matter in Kansas—and Lots of Other States

Governing Magazine just published an extraordinary profile of Kansas state government—what was left of it after Sam Brownback’s tenure.  Last November when a Democrat, Laura Kelly, took office, the new governor found herself assessing the damage from two terms of total austerity. Reporter, Alan Greenblatt describes a state unable to serve the public:

“To students of state politics, the failed Kansas experiment with deep cuts to corporate and income tax rates—which GOP Gov. Sam Brownback promised would lead to an economic flowering, and which instead led to anemic growth and crippling deficits—is well known.  What is not as well understood, even within Kansas, is the degree to which years of underfunding and neglect have left many state departments and facilities hollowed out…. All around Kansas government, there are stories about inadequate staffing…. Staff turnover in social services in general and at the state prisons has led to dozens of missing foster children and a series of prison uprisings… During the Brownback administration, from 2011 to 2018, prison staff turnover doubled, to more than 40 percent per year, while the prison population increased by 1,400 inmates, or 15 percent.  Guards have been burned out by mandatory over time and by pay scales that have failed to keep pace with increased insurance premiums and copays, let alone inflation. With inadequate and inexperienced staff, the prisons began employing a technique known as ‘collapsing posts,’ meaning some areas were simply left unguarded.”

The Brownback era ended, but the damage has not yet been repaired: “By the time Kelly took office, legislators recognized the hole the state was in.  Coming hard on the heels of the recession, state revenues plunged $700 million during the first year following Brownback’s tax cuts.  Missing revenue targets became a monthly sport in Kansas for years after.  With schools shutting down early and Brownback looking to raid funding for other children’s programs, the Republican controlled legislature finally rolled back most of Brownback’s tax cuts in 2017, over his veto… Largely as a result of the 2017 rollback of Brownback’s program, Kansas tax receipts are now expected to exceed $7 billion annually through 2022.”

Public education funding shortages were an issue even before Brownback entered office. In fact, many legislators have blamed the schools, not Brownback’s tax cuts, for funding reductions to other agencies. The need for adequate and equitable school funding has been kept in front of the public and in front of the legislature by Gannon v. Kansas, a lawsuit filed in 2010.  The legislature even tried—unsuccessfully—to pass a law making school funding non-justiciable.  Greenblatt counters with a reminder: “Getting education spending back as high as it was a decade ago, adjusted for inflation, is expected to take four more years.”

The Education Law Center’s Wendy Lecker traces the history of Gannon v. Kansas, the school finance lawsuit which has forced legislators in Kansas to reckon with the constitutional right of the children of Kansas to a public school education. There was an earlier lawsuit, Montoy v. State, in which a 2005 decision demanded that the state invest more in its public schools: “The Montoy case ended in 2006, when the Court ruled that new legislation substantially met constitutional requirements.  In 2008, however, before the State fully implemented the Montoy remedy, it began making significant reductions in school funding. The Gannon lawsuit was filed in response… In its initial Gannon decisions, the Kansas Supreme Court affirmed a lower court’s rulings that the State’s actions resulted in inadequate and inequitable funding levels and ordered reforms. The plaintiffs were forced to seek relief from the Supreme Court several times after the Legislature and Governor failed to enact the required reforms. In 2018, the Court ruled that additional funds provided by the State addressed funding equity but did not ensure adequate funding levels.”

Finally just two months ago, on June 14, “(T)he Court found the State had finally substantially complied with the constitutional requirement for funding adequacy. The Court noted the plaintiffs’ agreement that a $90 million increase was adequate for 2019-2020… Most important, the Court is retaining jurisdiction over the Gannon lawsuit to ensure the State follows through with the required funding increases.”  In an earlier report, Lecker adds that the state will need to appropriate another $363 million annually by 2023 to remain in compliance.  Ongoing court oversight will be needed to ensure the legislature honors its promise of additional appropriations.

The slow recovery in Kansas is mirrored in other states.  In Wisconsin, where last November, Democrat and former state school superintendent Tony Evers was elected governor to replace the far-right Scott Walker, the same battle to restore state services and the public education budget is being fought—this time without the pressure of a court case.  Evers creatively used his line item veto to increase public education funding on top of the appropriations sent to him by an extremely conservative Republican legislature.  For the Appleton Post-Crescent, Samantha West reports: “The state’s biennial budget will pump an additional $570 million into K-12 education over the next two years, but parents and students shouldn’t expect to see noticeable changes… While the increased funding is encouraging, Heather DuBois Bourenane, executive director of the Wisconsin Public Education Network, said there’s a long way to go…. ‘Anything that’s not a cut feels like a victory to Wisconsin schools… but how sad is that?'”

In The One Percent Solution, an excellent book on the fiscal impact across the states of the 2010 election, Gordon Lafer begins a chapter called “Wisconsin and Beyond” by describing nearly a decade of fiscal collapse in many states: “In January 2011, legislatures across the country took office under a unique set of circumstances.  In many states, new majorities rode to power on the energy of the Tea Party ‘wave’ election and the corporate-backed RedMap campaign… (T)he 2011 legislative sessions (also) opened in the midst of record budget deficits, creating an atmosphere of fiscal crisis that made it politically feasible to undertake more dramatic legislation than might otherwise have been possible. Any one of these things—a dramatic swing in partisan control, the suddenly heightened influence of moneyed interests, or a nationwide fiscal crisis—would be enough to change the shape of legislation.  Having all three come together in one moment produced something akin to a political perfect storm. For the corporate lobbies and their legislative allies, the 2010 elections created a strategic opportunity to restructure labor relations, political power, and the size of government.”  (The One Percent Solution, p. 44)

A key strategy of the state-by-state corporate agenda to reduce the size of government was tax slashing. In Kansas and Wisconsin, we see the deep and lasting consequences. There is, of course, a very simple moral to this story: The taxes we pay ensure we can have the public services we take for granted until they are gone. Corporations and individuals have a civic responsibility to pay taxes—which should be progressive, with those who have the most paying their fair share.

Kansas Supreme Court Declares School Funding Equitable; More Money Needed for Adequate System

Two weeks ago, the Supreme Court of Kansas found that the state’s school funding system remains unconstitutional, but gave the state a year to increase the funding. This is a relief to families, as the Court had threatened to force the legislature into a special summer session to increase school funding or shut down school altogether for the fall.  It also is a relief for those looking for justice for the state’s children because it means the Court has retained jurisdiction in the case—to ensure that the legislature will have to find enough money to provide for the needs of children in the state’s public schools.

The case of Gannon v. Kansas preceded Sam Brownback’s tax-slashing tenure as Kansas’ governor, but Brownback’s tax cuts only made matters more desperate for public school districts in Kansas, and particularly for the school districts serving the state’s poorest children.

Writing on June 26, school finance expert Derek Black explains what just happened in Kansas: “Yesterday, the Kansas Supreme Court issued its third decision in two years regarding the state’s school funding practices.  Yet again, the court found that the state had failed to meet its constitutional duty… The two big issues before the court were the equality of its financing system and the adequacy. The court found that the state had finally developed a plan that would achieve equitable access to school funding.”

The Court credits the Legislature with addressing inequity, resulting from the fact that the state has been expecting school districts to be able to raise local funding through something called a Local Option Budget (LOB).  Wealthier school districts could afford to do so; very poor districts have not been able sufficiently to supplement the state’s contribution. Black explains: “Under the prior law, not all local districts had the capacity to meet their LOB targets. The new law, according to the court, cures the problem by taking into account the percentage of at-risk students a district serves. Those with higher percentages will calculate their LOB requirement (and the funds they are entitled to from the state) differently than other districts. In short, high-need districts will receive more from the state and be expected to generate less locally.”

While The Court approved this system as the path to equity,  the issue of inadequacy of funding remains. In other words, despite that last year the Legislature raised taxes to offset the revenue catastrophe caused by Sam Brownback’s big experiment with supply-side, tax-slashing economics, the state is still suffering from inadequate revenue. Brownback had predicted that his tax cuts would grow the economy, but his hypothesis was wrong.  Now it is taking years for the state to catch up.

Reporters for the Wichita Eagle and the Kansas City Star explain the situation for the 2018-2019 school year: “The Kansas Supreme Court ruled… that a new school funding plan is still inadequate, but gave the Legislature another year to fix it. ‘The State has not met the adequacy requirement in Article 6 of the Kansas Constitution,’ the court ruling said.  But if lawmakers add money to compensate for inflation Kansas ‘can bring the K-12 public education financing system into constitutional compliance.’… The Supreme Court has previously ruled that the Legislature must meet two tests to satisfy a state constitutional mandate to provide ‘suitable’ education funding: It must be adequate, meaning that there’s enough total money in the system for schools to provide a quality education. And it must be equitable, meaning that the state resources are allocated to give poor children the opportunity to obtain an education of roughly similar quality to what’s provided in wealthy districts.”

Retaining jurisdiction over the case, the Court will consider it again on April 15, 2019, “when both sides will have to file reports on whether they think the Legislature has corrected the remaining constitutional issues.”

In Kansas the Supreme Court has provided the kind of checks and balances that are missing across many of the 26 all-Red states, whose legislators and governors doggedly pursue anti-tax dogma. That is why many far right politicians in Kansas have come to believe the Supreme Court itself is the problem. The reporters for the Wichita Eagle and the Kansas City Star quote Susan Wagle, the Senate President and a Wichita Republican: “Today the unelected bureaucrats of the Kansas Supreme Court chose to continue with the endless cycle of school litigation, leading us down the road to an unavoidable tax hike… When Kansas is on par with Nancy Pelosi’s California for sky-high property taxes and families are fleeing the state, we can thank the Kansas Supreme Court.” Senator Wagle and her colleagues are pushing for a constitutional amendment to remove court oversight and make education funding the sole responsibility of the legislature.

What the theoretical discussion of adequacy and equity of school funding misses is the impact on the daily experiences children and schoolteachers. Kansas is one of 12 states identified last November by the Center on Budget and Policy Priorities where the per-pupil school funding remained lower than before the great recession in 2008.  Several of the others—Oklahoma, Kentucky, Arizona, West Virginia, and North Carolina—are places where teachers walked out in massive protests this spring. We listened in those states to the teachers’ stories of huge classes, scarcity of counselors and support services, outdated textbooks, pared-down curriculum, and paltry, non-competitive salaries. We need to replay those stories mentally as we read about the Kansas court battle for better school funding.

On a a theoretical level, however, Kansas is a good example of the importance of checks and balances. It is a place where the judicial branch of government is putting a stop to a radical anti-tax experiment launched by the executive and legislative branches. That is how government is supposed to work.

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.”

Kansas Children Still Hurt By Austerity Budgeting and Tax Cuts: Court Says School Funding Too Low

In the first week of June, the Republican dominated Kansas legislature repudiated Governor Sam Brownbeck’s multi-year experiment with massive tax slashing, increased taxes, and instituted a new school funding plan that legislators hoped would undo the damage of years of austerity budgeting.  But on Monday of this week, the Kansas Supreme Court found the new plan unconstitutionally inadequate and inequitable and gave the legislature until June 30 to allocate more money and distribute it more fairly across the state’s school districts.

Here is the Wichita Eagle describing the new decision: “In a case with potentially hundreds of millions of tax dollars at stake, the Kansas Supreme Court has ruled that the Legislature’s latest efforts to provide adequate and fair funding still fall short. The decision that the current system is unconstitutional will send the issue back to the Legislature with orders to add more funding to school district budgets statewide next year. The ruling also ordered a fairer distribution of state funding, to ensure that students in poor districts have the same educational opportunities as their peers in wealthier communities.”  The Supreme Court ordered the Kansas Legislature, which reconvenes in January, to produce a new plan by April 30 of next year, have it reviewed by the court, and ensure that a new funding system is in place by June 30.

One lesson in this latest decision in Gannon v. Kansas, a case originally filed in 2010, is that it isn’t so easy to fix the consequences of several years’ of undermining the financial capacity of government.  Because public education—with the schools serving masses of children in every hamlet, town, city and suburb—is always among the biggest lines in a state budget, the school budget is always among the government responsibilities most seriously undermined by a state budget crisis. In Kansas, of course, part of the tragedy is that Governor Brownback created the tax slashing experiment that led to the budget crisis on purpose, because he believed somehow that massive tax cuts would grow the economy. He was proven wrong, and the children of Kansas have been paying the price.

Associated Press reporter John Hanna explains: “The decision puts the state in a tough spot: Another big school spending increase will force it to either make significant cuts elsewhere in the budget or raise taxes less than a year after the GOP-controlled Legislature rolled back past income tax cuts championed by Republican Gov. Sam Brownback.  The court rejected the state’s arguments that a new law phasing in a$293 million increase in funding over two years was enough to provide a suitable education for each of the state’s 458,000 students.  Four school districts that sued the state over education funding in 2010 had argued that the increase was at least $600 million short of what was necessary over two years.”

Of course following court decisions like the one this week in Kansas, there are people who argue that because school spending has increased over the years while school achievement has not risen, school spending makes no difference.  Bruce Baker, the school finance expert and economist at Rutgers University recently posted a brief on his School Finance 101 blog with evidence that disproves this allegation. Baker examines long term trends in the scores of black and white children on the National Assessment of Education Progress and demonstrates that since 1975 there has been a steady upward trend in both groups in reading and math.

His brief also covers school spending trends across the fifty states in a series of technical graphs. Baker demonstrates that, across the 50 states, school spending, adjusted for inflation, is not out of control: “(P)er pupil spending hasn’t risen for a decade and has barely risen over two decades…. So, no, school spending is not dramatically increasing over time and has declined in real terms from 2009 to 2015…. Over the longer term… government expenditure on elementary and secondary education as a share of gross domestic product has oscillated over decades but is presently about where it was both 15 years earlier (2000) and 40 years earlier (1975).  That is, education spending is not outstripping our economic capacity to pay for it.”

And there is evidence from another national report, this one from the Center on Budget and Policy Priorities, that during the past decade Kansas has had among the most serious shortfalls in school spending.  Last October, before the Kansas Legislature did undo Governor Brownback’s income tax cuts, per-pupil school funding in Kansas had fallen 13.1 percent (adjusted for inflation) below what the state was spending in 2008.