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.