Eagle editorial: Why the difference on school funding?

Increased funding to KPERS is good, but that “doesn’t put diesel into the bus tank.”
Increased funding to KPERS is good, but that “doesn’t put diesel into the bus tank.” benavidez

How can Gov. Sam Brownback say he increased school funding when school districts point to funding cuts? It’s because Brownback is counting money that school districts can’t spend on educating children.

This is also why a three-judge panel ruled last year that state funding for K-12 education is unconstitutionally low.

Brownback acknowledged this funding difference when speaking recently to Kansas school superintendents.

“I’ve been saying every year that I’ve been in office, we’ve put more money in K-12. And we have,” Brownback told the superintendents, the Lawrence Journal-World reported. “Your experience has been, ‘I’ve gotten less money,’ which is true.”

The increase in total funding has mostly been contributions to the Kansas Public Employee Retirement System. Brownback and state lawmakers – particularly former Senate President Steve Morris – deserve praise for tackling KPERS’ unfunded liability. But that extra funding doesn’t help school districts pay their bills.

“You’re saying – and I’m quoting one of you – ‘Well, that doesn’t put diesel into the bus tank,’ ” Brownback told the superintendents. “I understand.”

While total spending has increased, state base aid – the main funding source of school operations – has dropped from $3,937 per pupil when Brownback took office in 2011 to $3,838 now. In fiscal year 2009, it was $4,400 per pupil.

One factor in the per-pupil drop is that school enrollments have increased, particularly among low-income students. So state funding is being spread over more students, many of whom cost more to educate.

Brownback also blames the base aid decline on the loss of federal economic relief money – though that was also a policy choice.

After the economy crashed in 2008, the federal government provided temporary funding to help states limit cuts to schools and other critical services. As the economy improved and that funding went away, Brownback and GOP lawmakers chose not to replace it. Instead, they cut taxes.

Brownback told the superintendents that this was the best long-term decision, because if the Kansas economy can grow more, “we can fund things.” But he acknowledged that for school districts, “your transition is hard.”

That hard transition and the base aid cuts are why the three-judge panel ruled against the state. The Kansas Supreme Court is expected to rule soon on the state’s appeal of that decision.

Brownback can point to total funding increases and express faith in tax cuts, but the courts must focus on the funding reality facing school districts. And unlike the requirement to suitably finance education, trickle-down economics is not in the Kansas Constitution.

For the editorial board, Phillip Brownlee