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.

Red States: Waking Up to Public Responsibility for Educating Children?

This is the first of two updates on this spring’s wave of walkouts by schoolteachers.  Today’s post will examine the fiscal implications.  Tomorrow’s will explore what the walkouts may mean about shifting attitudes across some of the Heartland’s Red-states.

In a fine piece for NPR’s All Things Considered, Cory Turner provides some context for the fiscal crisis beneath walkouts across a number of states: “How did we get here? When you put that question to people who study teacher pay, you’ll often hear something like this: ‘I have been saying, Why aren’t (teachers) in the streets?  What took them so long?‘ says Sylvia Allegretto, a labor economist at the University of California, Berkeley.  She’s compared teachers’ weekly wages to workers with similar levels of experience and education and says teachers consistently earn less.”

In a brief for the Economic Policy Institute, Allegretto’s bar graph displays the nationwide disparities in pay between schoolteachers and other college graduates—but it is a lot worse in some places than others.  Oklahoma’s teachers have been making only 67 percent of the income of their college-educated peers in other fields.  Arizona’s teachers (the lowest-paid) have been making 62.8 percent; West Virginia’s teachers 74.6 percent; and Kentucky’s teachers about 78.8 percent. Across the United States, teachers’ wages average 77 percent what others make with equivalent education, and in not one state do teachers’ salaries exceed what their peers are making.

Turner also quotes Bruce Baker, the school finance expert at Rutgers University: “‘Teachers in Arizona are actually at the bottom of the heap…. And teachers in Oklahoma are pretty near that’… He mentions Tennessee and Colorado as other states with a teacher wage gap.  ‘What’s really so striking to me is that it’s had to get this bad. It was kind of like that slow boil over time.'”

Turner adds: “When you focus on teacher salaries, which make up the lion’s share of schools’ spending, data published by the Education Department show that, after adjusting for inflation, U.S. teachers earned less last year, on average, than they did back in 1990. In Oklahoma, teachers’ wages averaged $45,245 last year, down roughly $8,000 in the past decade. Over the same span, in Arizona, teachers’ wages are down roughly $5,000.”

Turner also addresses the myth of the gold-plated teacher pension: “(I)n many states, teachers don’t qualify for Social Security benefits, either. So they really depend on that pension.”  However, new teachers usually have to teach in a school district for five years even to qualify for the pension system. Turner quotes Chad Aldeman, who edits a publication about teacher pension systems: “In the median state, about half of all new teachers won’t stick around long enough to qualify for any pension at all.”  And while school districts must pay, on average, 17 cents on retirement costs for every dollar in teachers’ salaries, Aldeman explains: “Of that 17 cents, about five of it is actually going in benefits, and 12 cents of it is going to pay down unfunded pension obligations.”

One reason the massive walkouts have exerted so much pressure on legislatures is that huge salary disparities across state borders have fed teacher shortages in states paying less.  Teachers in West Virginia have been leaving for Maryland and in Oklahoma for Texas.  POLITICO’s Caitlin Emma quotes Tulsa School Superintendent, Deborah Gist speaking from her cell phone as she marched with striking teachers from Tulsa to Oklahoma City. Gist compared the average teachers’ salary in Texas at $52,575 to the Oklahoma average of $45,245: “I’ve had superintendents in Texas thank us because they hired our teachers. It creates an extraordinarily unstable situation.” Emma adds: “The Sooner State has had to issue emergency certifications to thousands of people in recent years to staff classrooms, raising concerns about qualifications.”

What have teachers won so far through the mass walkouts?  Though teachers have won raises and in some cases school funding boosts, legislators have not been willing to restore cuts to progressive income taxes or to bring back capital gains taxes on wealthy residents and corporations.  Sadly, regressive sales, consumption and sin taxes have prevailed.

Last month West Virginia’s teachers achieved a five percent raise, after the state’s governor had previously offered only one percent. And the state will give the five percent raise to all state employees. It is still unclear where the money will come from as the Governor has promised not to increase taxes.

In Oklahoma, teachers also will get a significant raise, though not the kind of increase they’d hoped for to increase overall school funding. The NY TimesDana Goldstein and Elizabeth Dias report: “In a deep-red state that has pursued tax and service cuts for years, teachers won a raise of about $6,000, depending on experience, while members of schools’ support staff will see a raise of $1,250…  To fund the measures, as well as some limited new revenues for schools, the Republican-controlled Legislature and Gov. Mary Fallin instituted new or higher taxes on oil and gas production, tobacco, motor fuels, and online sales. The state will also allow ball and dice gambling, which we will be taxed.”

After days of striking, Kentucky’s teachers returned to their classrooms after the legislature passed a budget that increases funding for K-12 education and a tax plan to pay for the increase, but Governor Matt Bevin vetoed the spending plan and the taxes to pay for it.  So, last Friday, Kentucky’s teachers closed school for an additional day and brought their enormous presence back to Frankfort. The legislature responded, according to the Associated Press report: “With the chants of hundreds of teachers ringing in their ears, Kentucky lawmakers have completed an override of Gov. Matt Bevin’s veto of a more than $480 million tax hike that helps pay for increases in public education spending.”

The Washington Post‘s Jeff Stein adds that Kentucky’s funding scheme, important as it is, is the definition of regressive: “The plan would flatten Kentucky’s corporate and personal income-tax rates, setting both at 5 percent. Currently, Kentucky’s corporate tax rates runs between 4 and 6 percent, while its income-tax rate ranges from 2 to 6 percent. The new flat rate of 5 percent for everyone means that small companies and Kentuckians with below-average incomes will face tax hikes, and higher earners will get tax cuts. The bill attempts to make up for those cuts by nearly doubling the cigarette tax and imposing sales taxes on 17 additional services, including landscaping, janitorial work, golf courses and pet grooming.”

Pressure from teachers’ walkouts in all these states and a #RedforEd movement threatening its own walkout in Arizona seems to have awakened Arizona’s Governor Doug Ducey, who announced a plan late last week to raise teachers’ salaries 20 percent by 2020. The Arizona Republic reported: “Gov. Doug Ducey on Thursday boosted his proposal for teacher raises next year to 9 percent, up from 1 percent he proposed in January, saying lawmakers would work through the weekend to figure out how to fund the plan.  Coupled with 5 percent raises the following two years—and the 1 percent raise given last year—Ducey said his proposal would give teachers a ‘net pay increase’ of 20 percent by 2020.”

Columnist for Tucson’s Arizona Daily Star, Tim Steller warned, however, on Saturday that it’s too early to celebrate in Arizona: “Everybody was right that the governor’s announcement was hopeful news, but this is no time for teachers or the #RedForEd movement to declare victory and stash away their crimson shirts. The only thing that has gotten them this far is collective action and increasing pressure. They cornered the governor in an election year, and they shouldn’t let him out till they’ve got their raises and increased school funding in hand… Ducey’s dramatic announcement was a great relief, but it was just words. It was a proposal to use money of unclear origin to raise the pay for teachers but not other employees like counselors and teachers’ aides. It’s a good gesture, but so far nothing more.”

Meanwhile on Sunday, April 8th, legislators in Kansas—under pressure from the state’s supreme court which had, last October, set an April 30 deadline for compliance with its earlier court order to increase school funding—passed a $534 million increase in school funding over five years. The state’s funding for public schools had collapsed in recent years as a result of former Governor Sam Brownback’s  failed experiment with tax cutting and supply side economics. However, after some hope early in April that the Legislature has likely appropriated enough money to meet the Kansas Supreme Court’s expectation, it turns out there was an $80 million flaw in the math behind the plan. The Associated Press‘s John Hanna reports: “The bill approved by lawmakers early Sunday was meant to phase in a $534 million increase over five years, and with the flaw, the figure is $454 million or perhaps a little less.” After a two week break, the Legislature will now return on April 26. There seems to be hope that the miscalculation will be fixed.

In these all-Red states across the Heartland, it is clear that a reckoning has begun. But so far there is neither clear agreement that paying taxes is a responsibility of citizens and businesses nor that taxation should be progressive with the heaviest responsibility falling on those who can best afford to support the public. At least, driven by the voices and actions of desperate schoolteachers—and in Kansas by a supreme court enforcing the state constitution—governors and legislators are having to face that their citizens seem suddenly to agree that there is a floor beneath which education services must not fall. And there seems to be an awareness that enough well qualified teachers are at the heart of what is necessary. That is a positive development.

Just Perhaps an Education Spring Is Beginning to Bud

While teachers have been demonstrating in the state capitals of West Virginia, Oklahoma, and Kentucky, a huge fight about the subject of their demonstrations—the failure of states adequately to fund public education—has been going on without so much fanfare in Kansas, where legislators have fought and failed so far to arrive at any kind of compromise about raising funds to comply with a deadline set by the state’s supreme court.

Facing an April 30 deadline set by the Kansas Supreme Court to come up with enough funds to undo years years of catastrophic tax slashing by former Governor Sam Brownback and the same legislature, this week Republican leaders in the Kansas Legislature debated plans for phasing in minimal additional funding over five years—one plan with $274 million and and another with $520 million.  They have also been talking about a tired, old strategy: Attack the Supreme Court itself. Here is the Associated Press report on this latest idea brought to the legislature: “A coalition of Kansas business and agricultural groups is proposing a constitutional amendment that would give the Legislature sole authority to decide education funding levels…. The constitutional amendment proposed by the Kansas Coalition for Fair Funding would remove the state court’s role in deciding what constitutes suitable education funding….”

By contrast, as teachers marched and filled statehouse lobbies this month in West Virginia, Oklahoma and Kentucky, at least some progress was made to repair years and years of austerity budgeting caused by years and years of tax slashing.  All four states—including Kansas—are part of today’s 26-state, all Red wave of Republican trifecta states. In these statehouses large blocks of legislators have signed Grover Norquist’s never-raise-taxes-in-my-lifetime pledge. These general assemblies are dominated by membership in the American Legislative Exchange Council.

That’s why, despite that the teachers haven’t been winning every salary or pension or state education budget fight, it is necessary to point out that striking teachers have at least begun to apply enough pressure to staunch the bleeding. That’s why Kentucky’s Lexington Herald-Leader‘s editorial board thanked the teachers who have been protesting: “Lawmakers knew that fired-up educators and pro-education Kentuckians, who filled the Capitol for weeks, were watching. That’s a big reason the Republicans who control the General Assembly abandoned some of Republican Gov. Matt Bevin’s and their own worst ideas for cutting public pensions and public spending. Instead lawmakers chose—of all things—to raise taxes. Many had to break the pledge that they had signed to oppose all tax increases. They responded to the needs and demands of Kentuckians rather than answer to distant anti-government puppet masters. That’s refreshing and encouraging.”  The editorial goes on to explain that the tax increase was the most regressive kind of consumption-sales tax and that the Kentucky legislature did at the same time further cut taxes on the state’s richest citizens, but teachers at least succeeded in securing some funding for the state’s children and their schools as they also demanded that their own pension system be fixed.  (Kentucky is among the fifteen states where teachers do not qualify for Social Security. The pension system provides their sole retirement benefit.)

This week the teachers’ walkouts and teachers’ protests of Red-state tax slashing have also made it as a topic of the commentariat.  Teachers have managed to make visible what has been a widespread problem for years—a problem of state-by-state tax policy that has slipped beneath the radar because it is too wonky and also too easy to castigate as somebody else’s problem.  Without mentioning the teachers themselves, the NY Times columnist and economist Paul Krugman, writing on Monday, explained, “I think we have to acknowledge the role of self-destructive politics… (C)onsider how some states, like Kansas and Oklahoma—both of which were relatively affluent in the 1970s, but have now fallen far behind—have gone in for radical tax cuts, and ended up savaging their education systems.”

The Washington Post’s E.J. Dionne Jr. also suddenly noticed state tax slashing, austerity budgeting, and public school under-funding: “The new teacher activism—born in West Virginia and spreading to Oklahoma, Kentucky and Arizona—is not a flash in the pan. And it’s about more than the demand for higher wages and benefits. It is a revolt against decades of policies that gutted public institutions… Today’s rebellion… is also built on genuine disaffection, in this case over the impact of deep budget cutbacks in conservative states, usually to support tax cuts tilted toward corporations and the well-off.  The teachers are bringing this home by refusing to confine their energies to their own pay.  They are highlighting the deterioration of the conditions students face—aging textbooks, crumbling buildings and reductions in actual teaching time… The red-state insurrections are a reminder of something that can be lost in our back-and-forth about school reform: Money matters.  You can’t run a decent school system on the cheap.  If you could, successful suburban school districts wouldn’t invest so much, and teacher pay is part of this.”

If such columnists regularly wrote about all children’s right to well funded public schools, there would not be such a need for blogs like this one.

Dionne and other columnists recommend that we notice the work of Brooklyn College political scientist, Corey Robin, who believes we may be observing the emergence of a revolution against the anti-tax conservative orthodoxy of the last forty years.  Robin theorizes that our current situation began with the passage—largely ignored in the political season when it was passed by referendum in 1978—of California’s tax freeze, Proposition 13: “which radically gutted property taxes in California and made it extremely difficult to raise taxes in the future. This was the real harbinger of the country’s future, a fundamental assault on the postwar liberal settlement of high taxes, high state spending, high public services….”

Robin continues: “It’s 40 years later… Right now, in the reddest of states, in the places you’d least expect it, teachers are starting a movement not only to raise their salaries and improve the schools, not only to reverse the assault on public education, not only to reverse the rule of Scott Walker which was supposed to provide a national model across the country, but to confront the real governing order of the last 40 years: the Prop 13 order.  In West Virginia, Oklahoma, Kentucky, and Arizona, we’re seeing the real resistance, the most profound and deepest attack on the basic assumptions of the contemporary governing order.”

I am a resident of all-Red Ohio, whose property tax freeze—similar to Prop. 13—is embedded in our state’s constitution. Ohio is also a state where tax cuts for corporations and the rich have been undermining public school funding for years.

I am grateful to the public school teachers who have been striking this month to improve not only their salaries but also their working—and our children’s learning—conditions.

However, by paying attention to the impasse in the Kansas General Assembly, we can see that turning around what Robin calls “the Prop 13 order” will be neither quick nor easy. We’ll need persistently to stand with teachers as they rise up against educational austerity in Red-state America.

This blog has covered this month’s walkouts by teachers here, here, here and here.

School Funding: A Moral, Not a Fiscal Problem

Taxes are merely a tool by which governments can fund the services needed in a good society.  Today instead, as the Freedom Caucus dominates the House of Representatives and Donald Trump sets sets the agenda, taxes and government are seen as the enemy—something to eliminate.  Grover Norquist, who leads Americans for Tax Reform and who has convinced a mass of state legislators to sign his pledge never to raise taxes, is famous for his declaration: “I don’t want to abolish government. I simply want to reduce it to the size where I can drag it into the bathroom and drown it in the bathtub.” In the eyes of many of today’s politicians, tax policy has become not a tool of government but a goal in itself along with the goal of reducing the programs and services the government provides.

Some of the services tax cutters want to eliminate are provided by public schools.  Even before President Donald Trump announced his budget outline last week, federal funding for schools had declined because many in Congress have prioritized tax cutting. In October 2016, the Center on Budget and Policy Priorities reported that the two largest funding streams for K-12 public schools have been growing smaller. Funding for Title I, the program for schools serving concentrations of children in poverty dropped 8.3 percent (adjusted for inflation) between 2010 and 2016 and funding to support federally mandated programs for special education dropped 6.4 percent (again adjusted for inflation).

If tax reduction were merely a federal malaise, it would not be so serious for schools, for federal funds pay for merely 10 percent of school funding, with the bulk of the money roughly split between states and local school districts. But because schools make up one of the the biggest budget lines in every state, tax slashing by the state legislative endorsers of Norquist’s pledge is definitely affecting public schools. That is why we are seeing more and more reports like this one about school districts in rural and small towns instituting four-day school weeks.  When states cut the budget and federal programs are also reduced, local school districts can either raise millage or cut programs.

School funding problems continue on display during this state budget season. In New York, the Alliance for Quality Education (AQE) released a white paper documenting that again this year Governor Andrew Cuomo’s budget fails to fulfill the state’s commitment under the 2007 Campaign for Fiscal Equity (CFE) decision to fund schools adequately under the standards of New York’s constitution. AQE condemns Cuomo’s recent budget proposal: “The 2017-18 Executive Budget repeals and does not replace the Foundation Aid formula, and would return New York State to the pre-CFE era when political machinations and arbitrary formulas guided the distribution of school aid—without regard for student need.”  In a new lawsuit, parents in three New York school districts have also just demanded that an appeals court release funds that had already been allocated to their school districts but that have been frozen by another court: “On December 28, 2016, Judge Kimberly O’Connor in Albany found that the budget director exceeded his legal authority in withholding the grants and ordered the funds be immediately released… for distribution to support vital programs at the schools.”  But, “Governor Cuomo decided to appeal Judge O’Connor’s ruling last month. Under New York law, the appeal triggers an automatic stay of the order to release the funds.”  The school districts list the services they cannot afford to provide without the funds: social work and counseling, family outreach, academic interventions, professional development, and extended learning time.”

And in Illinois—where weeks ago Governor Bruce Rauner vetoed a bill to send $215 million that had already been promised by the state to help the Chicago Public Schools avert bankruptcy—Rauner has finally agreed to release the funds, but only if legislators will redo the state’s pension system.  Rauner is holding Chicago’s children and teachers hostage.  A reporter for Chicago’s DNA Info describes  Illinois Senate President John Cullerton’s response to Rauner’s pension reform ransom demand: “The legislation would require public sector employees to give up ‘pension benefits in return for a one-time fix for CPS and no guarantee the state will offer the same assistance next year or any other year.” While there is politics involved in all this wrangling, experts document that Illinois imposes a structurally flawed funding system on Chicago and other poor school districts. The Education Law Center has identified Illinois school funding as among the nation’s most inequitable and has identified Chicago as chronically among “the most fiscally disadvantaged large urban districts in the nation.”

Kansas is the state where relief suddenly seems possible. Ironically Donald Trump himself may intervene (sort of) in the school funding crisis. It has been reported that Trump may be appointing Governor Sam Brownback to a post with the U.S. Mission to the United Nations in Rome, where Brownback would coordinate the work of agencies involved in food and agriculture. Yesterday the NY Times editorialized: “Kansas can only hope that reports are true that the Trump administration will let… (Kansas’s) governor, Sam Brownback, escape the disaster he created in Topeka….”  The editorial continues: “Mr. Brownback, a Republican first elected on the Tea Party crest of 2010, used his office as a laboratory for conservative budget experimentation. His insistence that tax cuts create, not diminish, revenues has left the state facing a ballooning deficit plus a ruling by the state Supreme Court that Kansas schoolchildren have been unconstitutionally shortchanged in state aid for years, with the poorest minority children most deprived. The court ruled this month that they would shut the state’s schools if funding wasn’t made equitable by June 30.”  The NY Times describes Kansas families as “experiencing the deepening budget crisis firsthand in shortened school hours and resources as the state suffered two credit downgrades. Public protest led to a number of Brownback loyalists voted out last year, with legislative newcomers igniting a budget revolt against the governor.”

We can only hope for Brownback’s departure through the confirmation of the Trump appointment to Rome. But there is some question about what would happen then. It is to be hoped that if he becomes governor, Lt. Gov. Jeff Colyer, also a fiscal conservative, will not veto—as Brownback last month vetoed a bill passed by the legislature to increase taxes by $1 billion over two years—the necessary revenue to support the state’s schools.

In Final Test, a book written long before our country faced today’s army of tax slashers—President Trump, Vice President Mike Pence, Education Secretary Betsy DeVos, Congressional Budget Office Director Mick Mulvaney and the members of the House Freedom Caucus—Peter Schrag, the retired editorial director of the Sacramento Bee, ruminated about the decades-long California school funding crisis following the passage of Proposition 13 and the role of the courts in trying to rectify legislative failures to fund schools. In chapters on school finance court battles in California, New Jersey, Ohio, Alabama, North Carolina, Maryland, and New York, Schrag ponders a question that is more timely today than it was when his book was published in 2003: “Court decisions—particularly those that seem to require states to provide ever-richer resources to under-performing children—will almost certainly run into increasing political resistance, on both financial and equity grounds. To what extent are middle-income and affluent voters, the people who come to the polls, willing to send their local and state tax dollars to support extra resources for other people’s children, especially if they’re poor, black, or Latino?” (p.238)

Of course, that is what the social contract is all about. School finance is not so much a fiscal as a moral issue.

Gov. Brownback Vetoes Legislature’s Tax Increase Fix for Kansas Budget and School Funding Crisis

Yikes!  Sam Brownback, the governor of Kansas, just vetoed a budget into which the Kansas legislature had inserted a two-year, billion dollar income tax increase, which legislators had proposed as the way to avert fiscal catastrophe. The school funding system had been found unconstitutional by the state’s supreme court and was saved last June only by a stop-gap remedy. And the state has been experiencing a fiscal emergency for years.

Governor Sam Brownback slashed the state income tax in 2012 and 2013 and made other changes to the tax code that have reduced the state’s revenue.  He predicted the state’s economy would grow (and produce more revenue) as a result of his tax reform, but growth has not happened as he predicted.  Every quarter, tax receipts have been coming in far under what was projected. The state has been enduring a budget crisis for several years.

Taxation at the state level is definitely a public education issue that has consequences for things like class size and student-to-counselor ratios. After all, public schools are always among the biggest lines in every state’s budget. Massive tax cutting always hurts public schools, and Kansas is a primary example. Last May the state’s supreme court threatened to block the opening of school in September of 2016 if the state didn’t do something about the funding. In June, the legislature convened a special session to come up with a stop-gap remedy and keep schools open. After the short-term remedy passed, John Hanna of the Associated Press explained: “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.”

In the November election, the voters of Kansas reelected four members of the state’s supreme court who had been targeted because these justices had found the school funding system unconstitutional. The public has also begun to respond by replacing the tax slashers in the legislature, but not fast enough. In November two dozen far-right, tax slashing legislators were thrown out by voters. This created a more moderate legislature. While the legislature that convened this January cannot be called “left,” it is at least more centrist than the one that helped Brownback get the state in terrible fiscal trouble.

Sadly, however, the voters didn’t replace quite enough legislators to save the state from fiscal catastrophe. Here is what happened earlier this week in Kansas, according to Max Ehrenfreund of the Washington Post:  “Kansas Gov. Sam Brownback’s ambitious tax overhaul—which slashed taxes for businesses and affluent households, leading to years of budget shortfalls—narrowly survived a mutiny Wednesday afternoon when about half of Republican lawmakers joined Democrats in an effort to overturn it.  Brownback, a Republican who once called his tax policy a ‘real-live experiment’ with conservative principles… vetoed a bill that would have repealed the most important provisions of his overhaul. While the House voted to override the veto earlier in the day, proponents of the bill came up three votes shy of the two-thirds majority needed in the Senate. Fifteen Republican senators voted to override the veto, while 16 voted to retain it.”

Alan Blinder of the NY Times explains further: “The Republican-dominated Kansas Legislature, confronted on Wednesday by both a budget crisis and a governor resolute on preserving his record on tax policy, handed a narrow victory to Gov. Sam Brownback, whose veto of a plan to raise more than $1 billion over two years barely survived an override attempt.”  Blinder adds that state officials project a budget shortfall of $346 million at the end of the fiscal year on June 30.

The Associated Press’s John Hanna reports: “The bill vetoed Wednesday morning would have raised more than $1 billion over two years by raising income tax rates and ending an exemption for more than 330,000 farmers and business owners… Ending the income tax exemption for farmers and business owners has broad, bipartisan support from lawmakers.”

Hanna explains that Brownback has not said he would impose further cuts on the state’s schools: “Yet Brownback’s own budget-balancing package is designed to avoid cuts in education funding and other programs. It relies heavily on internal government borrowing and other accounting moves, and he seeks to increase cigarette and liquor taxes and annual filing fees paid by for-profit businesses.”

We’ll have to watch how that goes. The problem with Brownback’s arithmetic has been that every quarter state revenues have kept on falling beneath Brownback’s projections.

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.'”

Hollowing Out the Public

While many imagine that the sum total of individual choices will automatically constitute the common good, there is no evidence that choices based on self interest will protect the vulnerable or provide the safeguards and services needed by the whole population.  Our society and politics have veered dangerously toward policy that rewards individualism and neglects public responsibility for the well being of all.

Some examples—

There is Kansas, where the state Supreme Court ruled last Friday that unless the legislature does something drastic in the next few weeks, the state cannot open public schools for the 2016-17 school year based on a school funding plan that has long violated the state’s constitution, despite that the legislature has been pretending to fix it.  In 2012 and 2013, Governor Sam Brownback and the state legislature slashed personal income taxes with the promise that the state’s economy would grow as a result.  The growth did not occur, and a state budget crisis ensued instead.  In February, after the state supreme court said the legislature must correct school funding by June 30 or the state’s schools must close, the legislature passed a bill to give poorer districts some additional state funding, but on Friday, according to the NY Times’ Julie Bosman, “In a 47-page ruling, the court rejected that bill, saying the Legislature’s formula ‘creates intolerable, and simply unfair wealth-based disparities among the districts.'” John Hanna of the Associated Press quotes one of the plaintiff’s attorneys: “(I)t would cost the state between $17.5 million and $29.5 million during the 2016-2017 school year to comply with the court’s latest order, depending on whether lawmakers want to prevent any districts from losing aid as they boost funding for the poor ones… Legislators aren’t scheduled to meet again this year except for a brief adjournment ceremony Wednesday.”  Whether schools open in Kansas next fall will depend on whether the legislature allocates more money at its closing session this week.

Then there is the plight of state colleges and universities.  The Center on Budget and Policy Priorities reports that the 2008 recession devastated state budgets for colleges and universities.  Though states have begun to restore allocations for higher education, tuition is up across the nation and course offerings and even building maintenance have suffered.  “Forty-five states—all except Montana, North Dakota, Wisconsin, and Wyoming—are spending less per student in the 2015-16 school year than they did before the recession.  States cut funding deeply after the recession hit.  The average state is spending $1,525, or 17 percent, less per student than before the recession.  Per student funding in eight states—Alabama, Arizona, Idaho, Kentucky, Louisiana, New Hampshire, Pennsylvania, and South Carolina—is down by more than 30 percent since the start of the recession.  In 11 states, per-student funding fell over the last year.  Of these, three states—Arkansas, Kentucky, and Vermont—have cut per student higher education funding for the last two consecutive years.”  The report adds that 38 states have begun to restore funding, averaging an increase nationally of 4 percent.  “Over time, students have assumed much greater responsibility for paying for public higher education.” “The cost shift from states to students has happened over a period when absorbing additional expenses has been difficult for many families because their incomes have been stagnant or declining.”

In Sunday’s NY Times, David Chen explains the local implications of this trend in New York City: “The troubles at City College, and throughout the entire CUNY system, are representative of a funding crisis that has been building at public universities across the country.  Even as the role of higher education as an engine of economic mobility has become increasingly vital, governments have been pulling back their support.”  In New York City, “While enrollment has climbed by more than 12 percent over the last eight years, Albany’s funding of operating costs—the main source of public money for the 11 four-year colleges, where two-thirds of students are enrolled—has dropped by 17 percent adjusted for inflation….”  Chen profiles Anais McAllister, a senior English major who had hoped to earn a teaching credential until cancellation of required education courses spoiled her plans: “When some of her required education classes were canceled, she realized she would need another year—and another $6,000 at least—to graduate with the education credential.  With her scholarship expiring at the end of this academic year, and a younger brother entering trade school in the fall to obtain his plumber certification, she dropped the education concentration.”

Finally there is the impact of libertarian politics and far-right lobbying by groups like the American Legislative Exchange Council (ALEC) in our statehouses.  These are the groups driving efforts to reduce regulation and rapidly expand privatization—with powerful charter school networks and their supporters protecting their right to drain tax dollars out of state budgets.  It has looked as though legislators in Michigan are finally coming together on a plan to rescue the Detroit Public Schools from massive debt driven up under state-appointed austerity managers, but a stumbling block is that while the Senate seems willing to establish a Detroit Education Commission to regulate the location, number and quality of charter schools—many of them in Michigan for-profit, the House is balking.  It is known that the Great Lakes Education Project, supported by the far-right Dick and Betsy DeVos, is lobbying hard against the inclusion of the Detroit Education Commission in the Detroit financial rescue, and Kevin Cotter, Speaker of the Michigan House, is reported by the Detroit News to be opposed to the establishment of the commission that would regulate charters: “Cotter remains concerned the commission could be used to ‘unfairly’ target charter schools.”

Brent Larkin, the former editorial page director of the Cleveland Plain Dealer, in a column on Sunday, quotes U.S. Senator Sherrod Brown summarizing the many ways Ohio’s state legislature is beholden these days to privatization and special interests instead of the public good: “The legislature is so close to the payday lenders, so close to the for-profit charter school operators, so close to the oil and gas people, and so close to the gun lobby… It’s their far-right politics.  It’s their campaign contributions. It’s the whole network in Columbus that betrays the public interest so often.”

What’s the Matter with School Finance in Kansas is What’s the Matter in Many States

Yesterday the Kansas Supreme Court heard oral arguments to see if changes made by the legislature and signed by Governor Sam Brownback in early April go far enough to remedy underfunding of public education and unequal distribution of state funds to support public schools.  The Court will decide, based on documents submitted and yesterday’s arguments from the plaintiffs and the state defendants, whether to shut down Kansas’ public schools for the upcoming school year, as threatened, or whether school funding in the state now passes constitutional muster. In its February decision, the Kansas Supreme Court said it would order the state’s schools shut down on June 30, if the legislature and governor neglected to find enough money by June 30 to fund schools adequately and to distribute the funding equitably.

It is very hard to be bored by a school funding lawsuit in your own state, particularly if you have children in school and you know the school librarian and school nurse will be shared by several schools or your high school will lose its orchestra if the case goes the wrong way.  When a contested school finance case moves through your own state’s courts, you are even likely to find people arguing about it in bars, because its resolution will affect two things people really care about—their children and their taxes.  If it’s somebody else’s state, however, particularly if its way out in Kansas, well that might seem like their problem—their taxes—their children.

But here’s the thing: what’s the matter with Kansas school funding is likely also the matter in your state.  So it’s very much worth paying at least a little attention. While it used to be pretty widely accepted that paying taxes for government services is a civic responsibility of individuals and businesses and that the tax code ought to be progressive, with the heaviest burden on those with the greatest financial means, these days such principles are being widely questioned.  Like Alabama, Arizona, Arkansas, Florida, Georgia, Idaho, Indiana, Michigan, Mississippi, Nevada, North Carolina, North Dakota, Ohio, Oklahoma, South Carolina, South Dakota, Tennessee, Texas, Utah, Wisconsin, and Wyoming, Kansas has all-Republican government without bipartisan checks and balances—a Republican governor and both houses of the legislature dominated by Republican majorities. And just as what’s happened in a lot of these states, Governor Sam Brownback led his legislature to slash taxes—a $1.1 billion tax cut enacted in 2012 and even more in 2013.  The economy, according to trickle-down orthodoxy, was supposed to grow as a result and yield more revenue to the state, but the plan didn’t work.  States like Kansas are broke and can’t see how to afford to fix public education. Not all the states have pending lawsuits, but school funding is a problem not only in the one party states that have embraced austerity budgeting; it is also a long running problem in other places including Louisiana, Illinois, Pennsylvania and New York.

Here is what has been happening this year in Kansas. In February the Kansas Supreme Court affirmed an earlier trial court decision in Gannon v. State of Kansas, and found the state’s school funding system unconstitutional.  The Education Law Center explains the February decision: “In its decision, the Court explained that Article 6 of the Kansas Constitution requires the legislature to ‘make suitable provision for finance of the educational interests of the state…’ Article 6 contains both adequacy and equity requirements.  It necessitates that the legislature provide enough funds to ensure public school students receive a constitutionally adequate education and that the funds’ distribution does not result in unreasonable wealth-based disparities among districts.”  The Education Law Center continues: “The Court had found an earlier funding system inequitable, and the legislature revised the system and brought it into compliance with the Constitution during its 2014 session.  However, in its 2015 session the legislature reversed itself, and the Gannon plaintiffs returned to the Kansas courts, arguing that the funding system had become unfair (inequitable) and therefore unconstitutional again.” Although in 2014, the legislature had made school funding adequate and equitable and satisfied the Court, in 2015, according to the editorial board of the Kansas City Star, the state gave up the formula it had recently devised and switched to school district block grants.

In March of this year, to satisfy the Court, the legislature devised a new plan, and Governor Brownback signed it into law in early April.  Press coverage of the new plan indicates that it cuts funding to some school districts but then awards it back without returning as much funding as the poorest districts desperately need.  It also includes a hold-harmless guarantee that ensures that no district will fall below the current funding level.  According to an April report in the Kansas City Star, a central problem is that because not enough total funds are available in this state that has drastically reduced taxes, it would be impossible to help the poorest districts without taking money from wealthier districts, and that, of course, is politically unpopular: “Fully funding equalization would have required spending an additional $38 million….”  The plan also allows school districts to raise local property taxes, likely to be an easier undertaking in the wealthier school districts.

A recent analysis by John Hanna for the Associated Press explains the political dilemma legislators faced in March as they developed the new plan required by the court: “It was necessary for legislators to prevent any school district from losing money even as they sought to improve funding for poorer ones, the state’s attorneys argue in court filings… Legislative committees considered proposals to boost total money to poor districts by taking funds away from as many as 100 districts.  But those measures garnered little support—partly because districts in Johnson County, the state’s most populous, faced big losses.”  Johnson County is home to the school districts of some of Kansas City’s well-off suburbs.

Alan Rupe, the attorney for the plaintiff school districts, Kansas City, Wichita, Hutchinson and Dodge City, is quoted as condemning the plan for its inherent inequity: ‘The state did not eliminate the distance between the districts caused by naturally occurring wealth disparities… It worsened the disparities and put the districts even further apart. They’ve done the worst possible thing.  They have left the valleys where they are and they have increased the mountaintops… I don’t think for a minute that creating greater disparity is going to satisfy the court. It’s sure not going to satisfy the plaintiffs.”  Yesterday Rupe told the justices that they have the power, “to restrict other spending in state government until or unless the schools receive other funds.”  Schools must be funded as essential public services, he said, according to the state constitution.

Whatever the outcome of the case currently before the Kansas Supreme Court, the Kansas City Star rates as zero the chance that the decision will solve the school funding problems across Kansas: “Another legal battle is under way over whether the state must spend an extra $550 million a year to fund K-12 schools.”

The decision expected by early June from the supreme court of Kansas will be important—whether legislative tinkering earlier this spring makes Kansas school funding satisfy the state constitution or whether the court will shut down public education in Kansas as of June 30 as a motive for the legislature to make more effort.

School Funding, Residual Budgeting, and Kansas

If you live in Ohio, and if you were paying attention during the 1990s, the decade of decisions and appeals of the DeRolph school funding case, you understand the concept of residual budgeting.  School funding in Ohio, the plaintiff’s attorneys explained again and again, is a mere budgetary residual. The legislators calculate the pot of tax money available this year; then they look at what they spent on education last year; then they divide available revenue  up across all the functions of government including education—usually making sure they don’t spend too much less on education than last year unless there is a budgetary emergency.  Any year’s state budget allocation doesn’t necessarily reflect what services are really needed, nor does it demonstrate an investigation of what different programs cost. In fact, because last year’s funding is usually the baseline, and because last year’s funding was likely way too low, the school funding formula is likely over time to become way out of kilter relative to the rising cost of services.  Although legislators may allocate something extra to support school districts serving a lot of children in poverty, nobody ever really measures what it would take to make our poorest rural and urban schools operate as schools do in wealthy communities.

At the federal level, the most visible case of residual budgeting is for the Individuals with Disabilities Education Act.  When Congress passed the IDEA in 1975, Congress said the federal government would pay 40 percent of the costs, but in 2014, Congress paid for only 16 percent. Local school districts are simply expected to pick up the expenses of what is known to be a huge unfunded mandate.  Similarly, Title I was created in 1965 as the centerpiece of the Elementary and Secondary Education Act to assist schools serving a large number or high concentration of children in poverty, but Title I has never been funded at a level to support the education of all the children who qualify. Neither has it sufficiently compensated for school funding inequity across the states.

In the 1990s, the problem of residual budgeting at the federal level was compounded by outcomes-based demands for accountability.  David Cohen and Susan Moffitt, in their book The Ordeal of Equality, describe how the 1994 and 2001 reauthorizations of the Elementary and Secondary Education Act failed.  These two reauthorizations incorporated an outcomes-based strategy, “profoundly at odds with the unequal conditions of education in the United States.  Neither policy was paired with policies that supported improved employment, better health care, and early education, nor did either make a substantial effort to reduce unequal educational resources among schools within districts, among districts within states, or among states. The two bills addressed public education as though schools could dramatically change their operations quite in isolation from the political, social, and economic sources of educational problems.” (The Ordeal of Equality, p. 191)

The Every Student Succeeds Act, the recent, 2015 reauthorization of the Elementary and Secondary Education Act, represents the same sort of denial. In the new law, Congress failed to expand Title I, despite that its own 2013, Equity and Excellence Commission had concluded: “The common situation in America is that schools in poor communities spend less per pupil—and often many thousands of dollars less per pupil—than schools in nearby affluent communities, meaning poor schools can’t compete for the best teaching and principal talent in a local labor market and can’t implement the high-end technology and rigorous academic and enrichment programs needed to enhance student performance. This is arguably the most important equity-related variable in American schooling today. Let’s be honest: We are also an outlier in how many of our children are growing up in poverty… We are also an outlier in how we concentrate those children, isolating them in certain schools—often resource-starved schools—which only magnifies poverty’s impact and makes high achievement that much harder.”

There have been efforts by school finance experts and advocates to get Congress and  legislative bodies across the states to measure equity according to the actual cost of services. The plaintiffs in Ohio’s DeRolph school funding case called expert witnesses who defined a Basket of Essential Learning Resources for the 21st Century (scroll down the left side in the link to find the document). Experts call this an “inputs” approach and urge states to conduct “costing-out studies” to identify what schools must pay for the services they are expected to provide.  Legislators, on the other hand, have preferred an “outcomes” approach that instead measures test scores “produced” by school districts; they have liked to pretend there is no real connection between inputs and outcomes.  The reality, of course, is that because neither the federal government nor most of the states are willing to generate enough tax dollars to cover what would be the real costs, everybody seems to prefer the denial afforded by residual budgeting.  If a formula sends more state dollars to very poor school districts, surely that will improve the test scores, even if that amount can be proven to be inadequate.

This year’s poster child for residual budgeting and a school funding system way out of whack is Kansas, the victim of Governor Sam Brownback’s efforts to reduce the size of the state’s government through tax slashing. We are reminded by a 2014 piece in the NY Times that,  “Kansas’ current constitutional crisis has its genesis in a series of cuts to school funding that began in 2009. The cuts were accelerated by a $1.1 billion tax break, which benefited mostly upper-income Kansans, proposed by Governor Brownback and enacted in 2012.”  The newest report from the Center on Budget and Policy Priorities explains: “Another state that has imposed deep funding cuts—Kansas—eliminated its funding formula this year (2015), making impossible direct comparisons to earlier years.  Formula funding in Kansas was down 14.6 percent per student between 2008 and 2014, after adjusting for inflation.”

Last week the Kansas Supreme Court affirmed the trial court decision in Gannon v. State of Kansas, and found the state’s current funding system unconstitutional.  According to the Education Law Center: “In its decision, the Court explained that Article 6 of the Kansas Constitution requires the legislature to ‘make suitable provision for finance of the educational interests of the state…’ Article 6 contains both adequacy and equity requirements.  It necessitates that the legislature provide enough funds to ensure public school students receive a constitutionally adequate education and that the funds’ distribution does not result in unreasonable wealth-based disparities among districts.”  The Education Law Center continues: “The Court had found an earlier funding system inequitable, and the legislature revised the system and brought it into compliance with the Constitution during its 2014 session.  However, in its 2015 session the legislature reversed itself, and the Gannon plaintiffs returned to the Kansas courts, arguing that the funding system had become unfair (inequitable) and therefore unconstitutional again.”  This time the Kansas Supreme Court says it will shut down the state’s schools if the legislature and governor neglect to find enough money by June 30 to fund schools adequately and to address inequity.

The NY Times reports, “The decision is the latest blow to Gov. Sam Brownback, a Republican, and the state Legislature, which will probably have to find tens of millions of dollars in its budget for additional education funding. Kansas is already facing deep fiscal woes in the wake of Mr. Brownback’s decision to cut taxes, which he predicted would help bolster the state economy.  Revenue has fallen short of projections and he and lawmakers are scrambling to fill a roughly $200 million gap before the close of the session.”  As Kansas has discovered, when the size of the state budget pie becomes very small, residual budgeting—making all the pieces of the pie smaller without considering the real price of the services that need to be provided—reduces the state’s allocation for education far below the actual cost of essential programs for children.

Linda Darling-Hammond, the Stanford University professor and education researcher, “wonders what we might accomplish as a nation if we could finally set aside what appears to be our de facto commitment to inequality, so profoundly at odds with our rhetoric of equity, and put the millions of dollars spent continually arguing and litigating into building a high-quality education system for all children.” (The Flat World and Education, p. 164)

Why Is NY Times Worrying about School Funding in Kansas?

According to the Center on Budget and Policy Priorities thirteen states have cut per-student education funding by more than 10 percent since the recession began five years ago.  The top four school finance slashers are Oklahoma, which has cut funding for K-12 public education by 22.7 percent, Alabama by 20.1 percent, Arizona by 17.2 percent, and Kansas by 16.5 percent.

In a 2006 decision, Montoy v. State, the supreme court of Kansas “ordered cost-based, sufficient, and equitable funding,” “based upon actual costs to educate children,” according to the Education Law Center (here, here, and here).  However, the legislature failed to fund the remedy fully, and as the economy of Kansas began to recover from the 2008 recession, Governor Sam Brownback and the legislature passed a five-year $3.7 billion tax cut instead of increasing the amount of money for public education.

In response, in 2010 plaintiffs pushed back, filing Gannon v. State, and leading to a unanimous trial court decision early in January 2013 in support of more funding for K-12 public schools.  The trial court demanded  that the state immediately increase investment in  education by at least $440 million.  The state, of course, appealed , and last week the supreme court in Kansas heard oral arguments.

Because Kansas is so very far in every way from New York, I was stunned to see the New York Times take the unusual step of editorializing in this case: “The court should quickly put priorities in order by affirming a lower-court ruling last January that found the state ‘completely illogical’ in using the new revenues to provide tax cuts while arguing it had inadequate resources for educating schoolchildren.”

Because all the states have different education funding formulas and because it all gets to seeming like an arcane bunch of numbers, I think it is easy to gloss over the school finance inadequacy and inequity in other states where the cuts don’t affect my own children or  neighbors or community.  Problems for those other places can seem pretty far away.  But when there is school finance trouble in my own state, the issues feel more personal than almost anything else. The school funding formula determines whether we have a school nurse, a school librarian, a middle school orchestra, a class in Calculus, Advanced Placement chemistry.  Will the kindergarten class have 21 or 32 children?  Will high school English teachers teach four classes of 25 or five classes of 35, a difference that will likely determine whether the teacher can assign and read enough essays to teach adolescents how to write.  Will I as a parent have to spend months trying to pass a local school levy merely to replace programs eliminated when the state legislature cut the funding?

It should be a cause for concern everywhere in America that, according to the Center on Budget and Policy Priorities, “despite some improvements in overall state revenues, schools in around a third of states are entering the new school year (2013-2014) with less state funding than they had last year.” I am delighted to see the New York Times speaking to disturbing threats across the nation to K-12 public education, threats that derive not only from the lingering impact of the 2008 recession, but also from tax cuts by Tea Party-dominated legislatures and governors and the implications of the federal sequester for Title I and the Individuals with Disabilities Education Act.