Kansas State of the State: Gov. Brownback Resists Tax Hikes, Calls for Constitutional Amendment on Ed Financing
Multifaceted approach to education financing promises no new taxes
In his final State of the State Address, Kansas Governor Sam Brownback highlighted the mounting evidence of economic strength across the Sunflower State. In particular, he celebrated reaching “another record for most Kansans ever employed, 1.4 million, and the lowest unemployment rate we’ve seen since 2000.” In addition, he pointed out “the state’s childhood poverty rate has shrunk to the lowest level we’ve seen since before the Great Recession.” But Brownback quickly took on “the biggest issue of the session, school finance.” His multifaceted approach to resolution promises no new taxes.
The governor promised $600 million in new education spending over the next five years. Other than his support for a teacher pay raise, spending parameters were left unmentioned. Instead, he offered several goals for consideration by the Board of Education, including dual credit court work for high schoolers enrolled in higher education classes. He stressed that “money by itself will not solve the problem,” using as an example the dismal results in Kansas City, Missouri, following a $2 billion court-spurred infusion of funding over 10 years.
The fact is, numerous states actually spend less per pupil on education while obtaining academic results superior to Kansas. Legislators can incentivize innovation, and expand school choice-particularly for those trapped in underperforming schools- rather than simply increasing funding levels. Spending increases are the simple solution often demanded by politicians and the public sector to resolve perceived—and often very real—inadequacies.
The politically charged struggle over school financing is a complex one, spanning decades. The Kansas Constitution’s K-12 funding requirement for public schools simply states “the legislature shall provide for intellectual, educational, vocational and scientific improvement by establishing and maintaining public schools…” This vagueness leaves the door open to heated court disputes over whether this important—albeit mostly undefined—requirement is met. In an effort to ensure compliance with the right to an “adequate education,” the Kansas Supreme Court has articulated minimum standards for public schools. Kansas legislators have codified these standards into statutory law.
The disagreement between appropriators and the Court centers on whether current funding levels and mechanisms meet these constitutional requirements. The Kansas Supreme Court recently held that “the state’s public education financing system provided by the Legislature for grades K-12, through its structure and implementation, is not reasonably calculated to have all Kansas public education students meet or exceed” the “adequacy requirement” of Article 6 of the Kansas Constitution. The Court found that 75 percent of students are meeting the relevant academic standards under the current system, 25 percent of students are underperforming.
History indicates that due to the vagueness of the constitution and the activist bent of the judges on the Court, yet another infusion of cash into the school system does nothing to inoculate taxpayers from calls for ever-increasing funding levels. To stop “the never-ending cycle of litigation on school finance,” Brownback called for the “legislature to put a Constitutional amendment on the ballot this year addressing our school finance system.”
Since 2005, per pupil spending increased an inflation-adjusted 10.7 percent. In 2017, per pupil spending in Kansas public schools reached a new record of $13,215. School districts have chosen to sock away some of this spigot of funds. Over this same timeframe, the Kansas Department of Education reports cash reserves outside of those set aside for capital outlays and debt service soared from $468 million to a record $928 million in 2017. This amounts to an estimated $1,900 per currently enrolled student. This enormous increase mostly represents state and local tax revenue collected to fund local schools-schools which then placed these resources in the bank rather than spend those dollars on education.
Without a constitutional amendment more clearly defining the funding requirements and guiding the determining of whether legislative obligations are fulfilled, lawsuits will continue to be filed, judgments rendered, and legislators forced to comply. “As the governor said, “The people need to be heard on this central issue of state government.” In effect, unelected justices (subject only to retention votes or impeachment) force their will on the legislators. And legislators use the Supreme Court as a scapegoat for tax increases—tax increases which incidentally please a core constituency of public sector unions.
The governor’s rejection of a tax increase is welcomed news for taxpayers. Just last year, legislators overrode his veto in order to enact an enormous tax increase of $1.2 billion over the next two years alone. This tax hike on individuals and businesses wiped out much of the tax reductions from the 2012 reforms. Avoiding a new tax increase, pushing for a voter-approved constitutional amendment on school financing, and demanding educational reforms will help avoid compounding the damage from last year’s tax hikes.