Regardless of what you may have heard from the governor’s office or Republican leadership of the Kansas Legislature, 2016 was not a record-setting year for state spending on public schools.
An updated but little-noticed budget report released last month shows that total state aid for the 2016 fiscal year, which ended on June 30, actually dropped about $13.6 million from a $3.98 billion peak in 2015.
The updated budget report, called the “comparison report,” punctures what had been two talking points for Gov. Sam Brownback’s office and Republican leaders at the Statehouse, who said state aid had not only set a school-funding record but for the first time had crossed the $4 billion threshold.
Overall school funding fell in May when the governor and the Legislature, facing massive revenue shortfalls, opted to delay a payment to the Kansas Public Employees Retirement System.
Budget director Shawn Sullivan confirmed that the state’s overall education funding for 2016 fell short of 2015’s numbers. The current budget calls for a record-setting spending level of $4.09 billion in fiscal 2017, but it is not yet known whether lawmakers will make changes when they return to the Statehouse in January.
Brownback spokeswoman Eileen Hawley noted that the budget this fiscal year, now in its third month, is on pace to break the 2015 record and exceed $4 billion.
“We have good schools in Kansas, and the governor wants to make them even better,” Hawley said. “He looks forward to working with legislators, who are the appropriators, when they return in January.”
Senate Minority Leader Anthony Hensley, D-Topeka, who has been a critic of the Republican-dominated state government, said it’s ironic that a cut in KPERS busted the claim of record school spending, because Republicans had insisted KPERS be counted as school money so they could say they increased education funding.
He said it was little more than an accounting trick to mask operating revenue that isn’t keeping up with inflation and that is forcing spending cuts at the school district level.
They play around with these numbers all the time to try to make things look better than they are.
Senate Minority Leader Anthony Hensley, D-Topeka
“The Republicans don’t have any sense of reality when it comes to what their shortchanging of K-12 education has done,” Hensley said. “They play around with these numbers all the time to try to make things look better than they are. And that’s just part of the (mode of operation) of the Brownback administration and has been for several years now.”
If KPERS weren’t included, the state would have shown about a $35 million increase in aid to schools, from about $3.67 billion in 2015 to $3.7 billion in 2016.
Effect on schools
At one point, the state appeared poised to cross the $4 billion line to make 2016 a record-setting year.
In his initial budget recommendation in January, Brownback asked for $4.04 billion in state aid.
But by May, Brownback proposed – and the Legislature approved – deferring a scheduled $100 million payment into KPERS. Of that, $79 million would have gone for school employees’ retirement.
That change reduced state aid to schools to $3.96 billion, the report showed.
Mark Tallman, a financial analyst and lobbyist for the Kansas Association of School Boards, said whether KPERS goes up or down in any given year doesn’t much affect what actually happens in school districts and their classrooms.
“This is another example of (where), to manage cash, the Legislature did something that really changes the amount districts are getting but doesn’t really affect school district operations,” he said.
Tallman issued a report last month testing Brownback’s statement that overall school funding had risen by 8 percent in the six years since he took office.
While acknowledging Brownback’s statement is true overall, Tallman calculated that operating aid to schools has risen less than 1 percent on Brownback’s watch, compared to a 9 percent inflation rate.
When adjusted for enrollment increases, operational funding per pupil has actually dropped by 0.7 percent, he calculated.
“My point is this (KPERS delay) looks like a pretty big cut, and it is compared to last year, but it’s really no more meaningful from a school budget perspective than the (earlier) increases in KPERS that have been provided that the governor and others want to get credit for,” he said.
He said the school board association doesn’t want to minimize that the Legislature and governor have over time added money to KPERS.
But, “When a big part of the increase has been for (KPERS) and then the sort of the argument is made: ‘So schools shouldn’t be complaining because they’re actually getting these increases,’ then it’s important to understand those increases aren’t helpful,” he said. “If you’re going to take credit for the increases, you also need to kind of take the responsibility when they’ve been cut. Be consistent both ways.”
Court case moving
Despite the change, the governor’s office and conservative GOP legislative leaders continued to talk about record school spending in the shadow of a Supreme Court case over whether the state is meeting its constitutional obligation to provide suitable funding for public education.
For example, House Speaker Ray Merrick, R-Stilwell, responded to a June court action finding school funding inequitable by issuing a news release saying the Legislature had “acted in good faith to equalize the record amounts of money going to schools.”
Merrick is retiring from the Legislature at the end of his current term, and neither he nor his spokesperson returned a message left at their office seeking comment.
The Supreme Court is scheduled to hear oral arguments Wednesday on whether the state’s school funding is adequate.
Lawyers representing the state in the Supreme Court case also have cited record education spending as reason to reject school districts’ contention that the state isn’t providing enough money.
Most recently, it surfaced in an Aug. 12 filing that included a two-page section titled “School funding remains at record high levels.”
There is little doubt that K-12 public spending in Kansas will set another record high in 2017.
Kansas attorney general’s brief to state Supreme Court
“There is little doubt that K-12 public spending in Kansas will set another record high in 2017,” the court document said, citing the potential for both state and federal funding.
With federal money included, schools did get about $72 million more in 2016 than in 2015, according to the budget update. However, federal funds are generally earmarked for specific federal programs and can be used only for those expenses.
In 2016, $60 million of the increase in federal funding was restricted to school food assistance.
The state is on track to cross the $4 billion line this fiscal year and set a record for state education funding if the current budget holds through the end of the fiscal year in June.
However, the Legislature will be in session beginning in January, and the governor and lawmakers regularly make midyear changes depending on the state’s revenue picture.
School funding could go up or down from the current budgeted amount, and the makeup of the Legislature itself is expected to change significantly when new members take their seats after the November election. In the August primaries, pro-education moderate Republicans captured most of the seats they had lost to conservative Brownback allies since 2012.
In any case, the Legislature will have to craft a new formula for funding schools to comply with a state law that repealed the previous formula and established two years of “block grant” funding as a stopgap measure.
Sullivan, the state budget director, said he can’t forecast what the changes in the Legislature might mean for school funding in the coming session. “I try to stay out of the predictions,” he said.
But he said he is fairly certain the Supreme Court case is unlikely to make a difference between now and the July 1 start of the new fiscal year.
“Even if they come back and they order additional money, it would be awfully hard to add it for fiscal 2017 because you’re halfway through the school year and it’s hard to generate $500 to $800 million, whatever it turns out to be, halfway through a fiscal year,” he said. “So while I can’t predict what the Supreme Court’s going to do, I think common sense would tell me that they would order it for a new fiscal or new school year, not the one we’re currently in.”