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.”

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.

You Get What You Pay For: Taxes and the Public Schools

Slashing income taxes will not grow your state’s economy, but it will very likely destroy your public schools.  If your state rolls back income taxes, your public schools will inevitably have fewer guidance counselors, and class sizes will be bigger—that is unless you can pass extra taxes locally to make up for the cuts in state revenue.  It is an old maxim: You get what you pay for.

Here is the warning that came in mid-May from the Center on Budget and Policy Priorities: “More than a dozen states have cut personal income tax rates in recent years in hopes of spurring their economies in the aftermath of the Great Recession.  Five states—Kansas, Maine, North Carolina, Ohio, and Wisconsin—enacted especially large cuts in the last five years.  In all five states, leading policymakers claimed that the tax cuts would produce stronger economic growth.  For example, after signing the cuts in his state, Kansas Governor Sam Brownback claimed, ‘Our new pro-growth tax policy will be like a shot of adrenaline into the heart of the Kansas economy.’  None of these big tax-cutting states have seen their economies surge since enacting the tax cuts.”

The Center on Budget and Policy Priorities report continues: “Four of the five states that enacted the largest personal income tax cuts in the last few years have had slower job growth since enacting their cuts than the nation as a whole… States with the biggest tax cuts in the 1990s grew jobs during the next economic cycle at an average rate only one-third as large as more cautious states… Kansas, which enacted the most aggressive personal income tax cuts of recent years, has nearly drained its operating reserves to pay for the tax cuts.  It now faces hundreds of millions of dollars in cuts to funding for schools and other priorities already damaged by the recession.”  It’s a race to the bottom among the tax-slashing states: “Because states must balance their budgets, they must pay for tax cuts by cutting state services, raising other taxes, or both  Those actions slow the economy, offsetting the economic benefit of the tax cuts.”

Chris Suellentrop, a writer for the NY Times Magazine, shifts the point of view by showing us this story through the distorted ideological lenses of members of the Kansas legislature and Kansas Governor Sam Brownback.  Things look different in Topeka, if you hang out in the halls of a statehouse where conservative Republicans dominate both houses and where Governor Brownback doggedly insists that Kansas’s economic future hinges on a “march to zero” income taxes.

Here is what Suellentrop learns by talking to his uncle, the vice-chair of the Tax Committee in the Kansas House of Representatives: “‘People are leaving Kansas,’ he told me. The state has no mountains and no beaches, and thousands of jobs that were lost during the Great Recession, especially in Wichita’s aircraft industry, never returned.  The march to zero, which includes an already-passed provision that exempts the owners of 330,000 businesses and farms in Kansas from income tax, was designed… to turn Kansas into a different sort of tourist attraction. As he and his fellow conservatives see it, it’s an ‘open for business’ sign, one they hope will draw free enterprise to the state, perhaps akin to the way the national debate over the expansion of slavery once drew young abolitionists from New England to the plains.  At the very least, they hope it will prevent young people and existing businesses from moving elsewhere, to places with ski lodges or surf shops.”

Suellentrop describes the move to the far-right in Kansas’ politics: “In the past four years, Brownback has remade the Kansas Republican Party in his likeness.  The party’s once-powerful moderate wing has withered after steep losses in consecutive primary elections, the main battleground where policy is determined in a one-party state.  In 2011, the Kansas House welcomed 33 new Republican members, and then 40 more in 2013, a turnover of more than half the body in just a few years.  The Senate’s moderate Republican president, Steve Morris, was ousted in 2012 with Brownback’s support.  It has been a striking transformation for a state party long associated with a more cooperative approach to politics.”

Suellentrop explains the clash between Brownback’s vision and fiscal reality in terms that the Center on Budget and Policy Priorities would confirm: “The budget itself, at least in broad strokes, is not a complicated document.  About half the state’s spending goes to K-12 education, with another 12 percent or so given to the state’s public colleges.  Around 20 percent goes to Medicaid, some more to pensions for teachers and state workers.  Add those numbers up and you get a budget that’s relatively inflexible, even for a governor and legislature eager to cut it.”

The problem for Kansas’ governor and legislators, as Suellentrop tells the story, is that they want good schools and universities, but they want to have the tax cuts, too.  So far Brownback’s income tax cuts haven’t brought the promised economic growth that would make all this work out: “Government revenues plummeted.  In fiscal year 2014, which ended about a year ago, Kansas took in almost $330 million less than it had anticipated, almost 6 percent below the estimates of the state’s nonpartisan experts.  According to Pew, at the end of 2014 only five states had experienced declines in tax revenues for three consecutive quarters: Alaska, Connecticut, North Carolina, Wisconsin and Kansas.  Moody’s cut its debt rating for Kansas in April of last year.”

Late night budget negotiations continued through the spring of 2015 and into this summer.  The legislature repealed the over-twenty-year-old school funding formula, freezing school funding for two years as the legislature figures all this out, but at the same time restoring millions of dollars in emergency school cuts made mid-budget last February.  In a nod to fiscal reality, on June 12th, the legislature passed a plan that, “raised the state’s sales tax to 6.5 percent, from 6.15 percent; eliminated most itemized deductions for income taxes; raised cigarette taxes, and preserved a watered-down version of Brownback’s ratchet (that turns any revenue growth in future years to income tax cuts).”

Hanging over these negotiations, Suellentrop reminds us, is  a long-running lawsuit “before the Kansas Supreme Court over whether the Legislature’s K-12 cuts were constitutional and satisfied the legal requirement to adequately and equitably educate Kansas children.”  In late June the state’s supreme court released an 87 page ruling that the legislature’s new plan to fund the schools without a formula violates the state constitution.  The Wichita Eagle reports: “The court ruled that the bill violates the state constitution, ‘both in regard to its adequacy of funding and in its change of, and in its embedding of, inequities in the provision of capital outlay state aid and supplemental general state aid.'”  The court clearly disputes the governor and legislature’s arithmetic by which they have claimed that the state is providing enough funding for schools this year and distributing it as fairly as it did under the old formula.  Additionally, in a long-running case which the Kansas Supreme Court had sent back to a lower court for additional action last December, even before this spring’s finagling, “the District Court panel ruled that school funding was inadequate under the state constitution.”

What’s the matter with Kansas? An ideology of tax slashing in this one-party state is clearly one of the primary problems.

Jerry Brown and CA Legislature Demonstrate Support for Public Education in State Budget

Summer weather is being intensified by the heat of the state budget season—a time when, in too many places, the cost of tax cutting and privatization of the public schools is being represented clearly in dollars and cents.  And today’s attack on the common good is bipartisan.

A new report shows that New York’s Democratic governor, Andrew Cuomo, and the NY legislature have been the target of $13 million in lobbying in the past year to push the expansion of charters and a tuition tax credit voucher program—both hot topics in NY’s budget debate—with Cuomo leading the charge for privatization and vouchers.

Another report explores the impact of pro-charter school lobbying on the Democratic governor of Connecticut, Dan Malloy—money from people like Jonathan Sackler, who made his fortune producing Oxycontin at Purdue Pharma, and who is the founder of ConCAN (which is part of a nationwide, Sackler supported, coalition of far-right privatizers, 50-CAN). In an opinion piece in the Stamford Advocate, Wendy Lecker explains: “Governor Malloy’s tenure has been characterized by denigrating teachers, vigorously opposing adequate funding of public schools and vastly increasing financial support for privately run charter schools…. Why would Malloy favor these questionable privately run schools over underfunded public schools?… The web of charter money is so thick it must have blinded Malloy to the needs and wishes of constituents from Stamford and Bridgeport.”

And  in the middle of the country, Kansas Governor Sam Brownback, a Republican and radical income-tax slasher, was forced to raise sales and cigarette taxes to keep the state from going broke—the predictable result of his deep income tax cuts enacted last year.  No matter that regressive sales and cigarette taxes eat up a larger percentage of the income of poor people, Brownback had bragged about his adherence to far-right orthodoxy, in his belief that the income tax cuts that have left his state on the verge of bankruptcy will eventually grow the economy.  John Hanna explains in an Associated Press report: “Kansas found itself in such a deep budget hole because the tax cuts implemented in 2013 initially led to a steep fall in revenue that has still not reversed as much as Brownback had hoped.  For the fiscal year beginning next month, the state estimated in mid-April that it would face a shortfall of 12 percent of its general fund budget.”  Hanna explains further: “Brownback and his GOP allies managed to avoid backtracking on past reductions on income tax rates… Instead, they raised the state’s sales tax to one of the highest rates in the nation and smokers will be paying 50 cents more for each pack of cigarettes.  Republican legislators cobbled together a mix of tax policies to both balance the budget and attract just enough votes for passage, but it’s not yet clear whether they’ve created long-term fiscal stability.”  A number of school districts in the state had been forced to cut weeks off the school year this spring when the state suddenly was unable to provide funding that had been previously allocated and promised.

In this context, what just happened in California looks pretty encouraging.  Democratic Governor Jerry Brown and the California legislature just agreed on a budget that increases spending for education at all levels. California’s state fiscal capacity continues to benefit from the four-year Proposition 30, passed in November of 2012 specifically to pay for education.  Proposition 30 increased income tax rates for joint filers earning over $500,000 per year and single filers earning $250,000 per year, and it increased sales taxes for four years by a quarter of a cent.

At least until the four-year Proposition 30 ends, California has the capacity to increase education funding, and the new  budget agreement does just that. As reported by John Fensterwald for EdSource, the new agreement between Governor Brown and the legislature adds $6.1 billion (on top of last year’s 13.2 percent increase) for general funding for public education through the Local Control Funding Formula: “That’s an average of $1,088 more per student for an average district, in which 63 percent of English learners and low-income children receive extra money under the formula.”  The agreement also allocates $500 million this year for staff development for teachers.  It adds over $1 billion over three years for career and technical education.  It provides $60 million in new funding for interventions to support toddlers who have special needs. It adds $10 million to increase counseling and tutoring for children in foster care. It provides $7.9 billion this year for community colleges, a $700 million increase from last year.  Finally it provides $4 billion for debt repayment: “This includes $3 billion for unpaid state mandates and $1 billion in the final repayment for deferrals—late payments that required schools to borrow money.”

Having frozen local property-taxing capacity in 1978 with Proposition 13 and, over time, reduced the state’s investment in education, California has desperately needed to increase its budget for education.  In 2012 just before Governor Jerry Brown pushed through Proposition 30, according to the Education Law Center, California was spending only $8, 218 per pupil (when the average expenditure per pupil across the states was $11,110 ) and ranking 41st among the 50 states.  In a commentary back in November of 2012 immediately after passage of Proposition 30, Molly Hunter of the Education Law Center commented on what had been the deplorable level of tax effort in California: “Not surprisingly, California received an ‘F’ on fiscal effort.  This measures the percentage of the state’s fiscal capacity that is spent on education.  California, despite its enormous economy and relatively high fiscal capacity, devotes a small proportion of its wealth and economic vibrancy to public education.”

California continues to face serious problems in education funding.  John Fensterwald comments: “The fat budget years for education are expected to level off with the expiration of temporary taxes under Proposition 30.  Surging revenues have enabled the state to pay back most of the more than $10 billion… owed to districts in past years…. But districts are still owed $700 million, and that amount is expected to grow post Prop. 30.”

While for years to come California will grapple with a legacy of disastrous cuts to state and local funding of schools, at least this year Jerry Brown deserves credit for leadership in talking about the need to fund public services that serve California’s children from pre-school through the K-12 years and into community colleges. His declared support for public education, with dollars allocated to prove it, is refreshing.

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.