Oliver Wendell Holmes: “Taxes Are What We Pay for Civilized Society.”

You will notice that I did not mention the issue of school funding in the title of this post. Neither did I mention the name of the state that is the subject of the post. While I cannot tell exactly who is reading this blog, WordPress statistics tell me which posts are viewed, and I know that school funding is a topic people don’t like to read about—especially if it is in somebody else’s state.

School funding is not a taboo subject, however, if the fight is happening in your state. If we are parents, we know that what’s at stake is a class size of 32 children for third grade, or the presence of a school nurse, or an elementary school library that is staffed and unlocked. We know that the number of college counselors at the high school and the presence of the marching band or the orchestra might be at stake. We also know what pay-to-play means in a school-specific context where fees to play football or run track are threatened if the school funding is reduced. This is all pretty much invisible to other people, however. Because schools are buildings most of us rarely enter, we cannot see how money translates directly into services for children.

I hope that introduction is enough to make you feel obligated to finish reading this post, because I believe it is about some of the most important concerns for our society.  Do we feel an obligation to help the children in our nuclear family succeed or do we have an obligation to all children and the role of their education for our broader society? Do we somehow really believe that education is a competitive, zero sum game and that if other children win, our own children will lose? Are we willing to spend some of what we have earned to support the institutions of our community and our state?  Is cutting taxes more important than anything else?  Do we really believe deep in our hearts: “I earned it so I should get to keep it!”?

This post is—yet again—about Kansas. Kansas matters because what Kansas does about its tax cuts and its state budget and its school funding is really about the issues in many states. And what’s the matter with Kansas is also the problem in our Congressional debate about the Affordable Care Act and the impact of Congressional freezes like the Sequester on the federal budget.

You’ll remember that Governor Sam Brownback just vetoed a state budget that would have increased taxes to raise $1 billion over the next two years to help remedy years of budget shortfalls that have resulted from his income tax cuts in 2012 and 2013.  Brownback has dreamed that his experiment in income tax slashing would grow the state’s economy, but economic growth has not followed.

You may remember that a school funding inequity decision from the Kansas Supreme Court last year sent some additional money to Kansas’ poorest school districts. You may also remember that a school funding adequacy case, Gannon v. State of Kansas, has been making its way through the courts.

You may have forgotten that the anti-taxers in Kansas have been so desperate to save money they first tried (unsuccessfully) to pass a constitutional amendment to make school funding solely a legislative matter over which the courts had no jurisdiction. When that failed, and because court justices face retention elections every six years in Kansas, money was spent on campaigns to defeat four of the justices who have supported increased funding for public education. But all the justices targeted by the anti-taxers were reelected last November.  And a sizeable number of moderates who are not so committed to tax slashing were also elected to the state’s legislature in November.

All this led up to what happened on March 2, when the Supreme Court in Kansas announced a decision in Gannon v. State of Kansas. Here is John Hanna of the Associated Press: “Kansas’ highest court on Thursday ordered the state to increase its spending on public schools, which could further complicate the state’s dire budget problems and increase pressure to undo large tax cuts championed by Republican Gov. Sam Brownback.  The unanimous state Supreme Court ruling gave the Republican-controlled Legislature until the end of June to to enact a new school funding law.”  Hanna explains: “Many moderate Republicans and Democrats in the Legislature favor rolling back the large income tax cuts enacted in 2012 and 2013, which the conservative governor pushed as a way to stimulate the economy.  The state has struggled to balance its budget ever since, and even some Republican voters have come to view the tax cuts as a failure.”

The Gannon lawsuit was brought by four school districts, Wichita, Hutchinson, Kansas City and Dodge City, but last week’s Supreme Court’s decision demands increased school funding across the state.  The Wichita Eagle outlines the implications of the decision: “It gave lawmakers until June 30 to craft a new school finance formula that meets constitutional funding requirements. If they don’t, the state will have no constitutional mechanism for funding schools, which could lead to school closures. The court ruled unanimously that Gov. Sam Brownback’s ‘block grant’ funding system for schools is unconstitutional, siding with school districts that complained it underfunded their operations.”

School funding is an important piece of the state budget because in Kansas, according to Hanna, “The state spends more than half of its tax dollars on public schools.” Some allege, of course, that the fact that public schools make up large percentages of all state budgets is a symptom of our society’s overindulgence in elegant public schools at the public expense. President Donald Trump made such an allegation in his inaugural address when he declared that public schools are “flush with cash.” The reality, of course, is that schools cannot substitute cheaper robots and computers and create the climate of caring and trust our children need.  Public schools employ  professional teachers and counselors because that is what our society must expect for our children.  This is an expensive proposition when it comes to serving 50 million children across the United States.

In Kansas, the Wichita Eagle quotes Alan Rupe, the plaintiffs’ attorney, who commented that last week’s decision should not surprise anybody: “The Kansas Supreme Court has finally confirmed what anyone who has recently stepped inside a Kansas public school already knew: Kansas public education is significantly underfunded.”

And Wichita’s state senator, Lynn Rogers, who also serves on the Wichita Board of Education, declared: This is 10 years coming, and the state has lost every case so far… We’ve lost a whole generation of kids with inadequate funding, and hopefully this will communicate to the state how important it is not to lose a single kid, and that we need to do better than what we’ve done.”

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