Looming revenue shortfalls have many Kansas educators worried

Wichita East High sophomore Xitlaly Ibarra and her classmates work on math problems.
Wichita East High sophomore Xitlaly Ibarra and her classmates work on math problems. File photo

Last week’s election results could have big implications for education in Kansas, from school funding to the future of Common Core state standards.

Gov. Sam Brownback staved off Democratic challenger Paul Davis in a campaign dominated by education issues. In addition, Republicans swept other statewide offices and picked up a handful of seats in the Kansas House, meaning 2015 will dawn with a more conservative Legislature.

Rep. Steve Huebert, R-Valley Center, said he thinks the election “really pulled the party together” and that voters confirmed the belief that Brownback’s aggressive tax cuts have not harmed classrooms.

Local educators, meanwhile, said they fear shortfalls in state revenue – down $46.5 million from estimates since July – will mean eventual cuts to K-12 education, which makes up more than half the state’s budget.

“Regardless of who got elected, our concern all along has been decisions that would be made regarding funding for education,” said Wichita superintendent John Allison. “So far what we’ve seen hasn’t been positive.”

Huebert and other conservatives have argued for years that base state aid for education is only one piece of the much larger puzzle of school finance because districts receive additional money through “weightings” based on factors such as the number of at-risk, disabled or bilingual children they educate. After the election, he reiterated that total education spending is at an all-time high.

“I’m excited about the (election) outcome and the opportunities we have moving forward,” said Huebert.

In past years, Huebert has proposed taking 10 percent of the local option budget – money drawn from local property taxes – and redefining it as base state aid, a strategy that eventually played into the Legislature’s response to a state Supreme Court order to fix inequities in funding among school districts. He also sponsored a measure that would have required students be retained in third grade until they are able to read on grade level.

“At the end of the day, we didn’t really change a whole lot,” he said. “We didn’t look at real reform efforts and how to do things differently.”

The next legislative session could be different. Among the topics lawmakers could consider are expanded tax credits or vouchers for private schools, changing or de-funding the Common Core state standards, charter schools, collective bargaining for teachers and evaluating teachers based in part on student test scores.

Meanwhile, a three-judge panel still is considering Gannon v. State of Kansas, a lawsuit that alleges lawmakers failed in their constitutional duty to provide suitable funding for education. The panel found in June that the Legislature had satisfied a Supreme Court order to make school funding more equitable; it has yet to decide the bigger question of whether funding under the current school finance formula is adequate.

Justin Henry, superintendent of the Goddard school district just west of Wichita, said his biggest concern continues to be school finance.

Citing a recent report by the Kansas Center for Economic Growth, Henry said ongoing, scheduled tax cuts could continue to deplete the state’s coffers and threaten districts’ ability to provide high-quality education to Kansas kids.

“Four years ago, we took some steps across our district to respond to the recession,” Henry said.

Like many districts, Goddard cut programs, increased class sizes, shortened the school year, pulled down cash reserves, continued charging for full-day kindergarten and raised fees, some significantly. Goddard’s technology fee for seventh- through 12th-graders in 2011, for example, was $25 a year; in 2012, it went up to $95 a year.

“Now we’re probably looking at doing the same things over again. Four years later, we’re in the same place,” Henry said. “Where do you make more cuts after you’ve already done this?”

Allison said conservative budgeting means the state’s largest district likely can get through this school year without having to make midyear cuts.

But with more tax cuts set to take effect over the next several years, “unless the revenues grow enough to offset that, there’s no way they can continue to fund education, even at the levels they are today,” Allison said.

Huebert said he’s confident revenue will pick up and “hopeful that we are going to see growth in revenue over the next couple years.”

“Based on just what we are dealing with, I feel good that we can handle it” without cutting education, he said.

Reach Suzanne Perez Tobias at 316-268-6567 or Follow her on Twitter: @suzannetobias.

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