By Gene Meyer | Kansas Reporter
FAIRWAY – Kansas schools need more money, the state Board of Education announced this week.
As much as 10 times more than last year’s increase to school funding, in fact.
But that’s still not enough, say those who contend Kansas has shortchanged its schools by more than a billion dollars over the past several years.
It’s way too too much, say those who contend the request would amount to a knock-out punch to the state’s fragile economic recovery.
History favors the latter argument.
Kansas legislators and its governors have pared Board of Education budget requests sharply since the Great Recession of 2008 first began slicing into state tax revenues.
But the former argument has a chance, too. Kansas legislators in 2006 boosted school spending to beat a feared Kansas Supreme Court ruling against earlier, stingier state aid.
Gov. Sam Brownback has signed tax-cut legislation, which is projected to reduce state revenues by about $2 billion a year when fully implemented. The education board proposed a similar more-than-$400-million school spending increase last year, but Brownback and the Legislature cut the increase to $40 million.
Kansas spends about $3 billion a year to pay its share of school aid. Local property taxpayers chip in $2 billion more, and federal help runs to about $444 million a year, according to the Kansas Department of Education.
What will happen this time around, when legislators reconvene on Jan. 20?
“The governor will carefully consider all budget requests submitted to his administration,” said Sherriene Jones-Sontag, Brownback’s press secretary.
One Kansas board of education member predicts the latest $440 million recommendation will face the same fate as similar full-funding requests in the past few years.
“This is not realistic,” Walt Chappell, a Wichita Republican, told fellow board members at a meeting Tuesday. “It will never fly. It will have no credibility.”
Chappell suggested the board look for ways to cut school costs by redrawing school districts to a more reasonable size so that administrative jobs can be slashed, as well as eliminating state subsidies to Kansas’ smallest districts. Such moves could cut costs by $500 million a year, he estimated.
Even so, the board Tuesday voted to ask the Legislature for a $440 million increase, about a third of what the state needs to make up for years of inadequate funding, said attorney John Robb. Robb, of Newton, is the lead attorney for a group of Kansas schools suing the state to restore full school funding.
Lawyers on both sides of that lawsuit are scheduled to make their final arguments in late August before a special three-judge Kansas District Court panel. A decision is expected later this year, but that may be appealed to the Kansas Supreme Court.
The proposed funding “would get us back to the level of support that Kansas statutes require,” Robb said Wednesday. That level, calculated by a formula spelled out in state statutes, works out to about $4,492 per pupil, up from $3,838 Kansas is providing schools now.
“But it doesn’t fund the full cost of what schools haven’t received,” Robb said.
The cost should be $6,000 per pupil, or between $1.2 billion and $1.5 billion more, in total, Robb said. It’s based on conservative, inflation-adjusted estimates by the Kansas Legislative Division of Post Audit in 2006 , as well as estimates prepared by a Denver consulting firm, Augenblick and Myers Inc., for a previous school funding suit, Robb said.
Outrageous, says Dave Trabert, president of the Kansas Policy Institute, a Wichita think tank that advocates low taxes and free market answers to public policy questions.
Trabert calculates Kansas’ current school funding system — which includes federal help, sales taxes and local property taxes, in addition to the $3,838 per pupil that Topeka pays — would send taxes skyrocketing if basic state aid were increased to board-approved levels.
At a minimum, local property taxes would increase 4 percent just to pick up that source’s share of the potential increase, Trabert said. Depending on precisely how Kansans chose to finance the rest, property taxes could shoot up another 12 percent, income taxes could increase 16 percent and statewide sales taxes could jump 19 percent — to 7.5 cents on the dollar, he said.
“Any of those choices would have a serious impact on our state economy,” Trabert said. “And we’re not creating the jobs now that are needed for growth.”