Pump more money into Kansas schools
The Kansas City Star
All eyes are on Topeka today as the Kansas Legislature returns from a break with next year’s budget still up in the air.
Of several looming issues unresolved in this contentious session, funding schools adequately is one of the most essential. Every Kansas public school classroom has lost more than $18,000 over the last few years from budget reductions. State revenues are finally picking up. It’s time to start treating public education as the great resource it has always been for Kansas and return some of the lost funds.
The state Senate has passed a bill increasing the budget for elementary and secondary education by $74 per student — a total of $100 million over the next two years. That doesn’t make up for the $620 in per student cuts since 2009, but it’s a start.
As with most things in Topeka these days, there is resistance to a good idea. Conservatives in the House are balking at giving more money to schools, pointing to districts’ growing reserve funds.
But that’s just narrow thinking. School districts set money aside for bond payments and major purchases and to meet certain educational needs. They also use reserves to avoid going into the red in the period between the start of the school year and the time when they receive property tax revenue.
Kansas Gov. Sam Brownback has far-reaching ideas for the state’s school financing formula, including some that would make life more difficult for districts that serve large numbers of at-risk students.
The Legislature is running out of time, and school districts need to know how much state money they can count on in the coming year. Lawmakers should pass the Senate’s plan with the modest increase. And the governor’s office should refrain from twisting arms to attain big changes that haven’t yet received a thorough hearing.
Brownback and his staff haven’t been shy about leaning on lawmakers to pass initiatives that matter to the governor, especially cutting state income taxes.
Some reduction could be helpful, as long as it doesn’t harm low-income citizens or the state’s ability to fund vital services. Unfortunately, measures discussed so far would punch a hole in state finances, with no guarantee that business growth would make up the gap, as the governor contends.
Brownback regards lowering the income tax as urgent. For most Kansans, however, it is less so. A recent survey by the firm American Viewpoint showed that citizens overwhelmingly favored property tax reduction over income tax reduction. If lawmakers want to provide tax relief, they should resume funding an account that transfers some tax revenue to cities and counties for property tax relief. Though the payments are required by statute, they haven’t been made since 2004.
The survey also showed that more than twice as many respondents thought officials should use an anticipated budget surplus to begin to restore funds to education and other services as those who preferred tax cuts and smaller government.
Since lawmakers are having difficulty agreeing on anything, constituents could help matters along by calling their elected representatives and conveying their priorities.
Complicating the ability to get things done is the fact that Kansas has not yet agreed on how to redraw legislative districts to reflect 10-year population changes. Brownback is pushing conservatives to draw the lines with the goal of further endangering Democrats and moderate Republicans in the Senate. But members of that alliance understandably see no reason to pass a redistricting bill that would imperil their political existence.
As the only barrier to some of Brownback’s more radical ideas for Kansas, we hope they prevail.