Statehouse leaders aren’t reserving judgment on education issues until the courts decide on the constitutionality of K-12 state funding.
Instead, conservative legislators and others in Topeka are signaling through their comments and actions a keen interest in curbing spending, weakening teachers unions and using public tools to aid private schools.
Among the recent signs:
• Gov. Sam Brownback recently called for a “simplified” and “changed formula” for school finance, with budget director Shawn Sullivan saying that “we can’t continue this unsustainable path of spending on nonclassroom spending.”
• Senate President Susan Wagle, R-Wichita, seconded the governor’s call to re-examine the formula. “It’s taking most of our state money, and there’s concern we can’t continue with automatic increases that are folded within the formula,” Wagle told the Topeka Capital-Journal.
• House Speaker Ray Merrick, R-Stilwell, just removed Rep. Melissa Rooker, R-Fairway, from the House Education Committee in what she viewed as an effort to move her out of the way of leaders’ desired school cuts and ideologically conservative policy reforms. Merrick’s spokeswoman disputed that claim, but Rooker told the Prairie Village Post: “The big picture we have is a reform agenda that is intended to take us closer to the privatization of public schools. This will all be done in the name of efficiency, and ‘living within our means,’ but the fact is we’ve created this crisis ourselves.”
▪ The K-12 Student Performance and Efficiency Commission again looked this month at a proposal to ban teachers from collectively bargaining on anything other than pay and hours. Its final recommendations next month also could include legislation aimed at encouraging consolidation of school district administration or sharing of administrative services, and further studying and pursuing district reorganization, districts’ cash balances and yearly performance audits.
The ideas being floated gloss over the fact that the finance formula is complex because education is complex, requiring weighted funding to balance demographics and geography. Nor does the recent talk include boosting the base state aid per pupil from the current $3,852 back to $4,400, where it was when the Great Recession hit. It once seemed fair to expect such a restoration would occur once the economy and state revenues rebounded. No more.
The reality is that the 2012-13 elimination of state income taxes for many businesses and the ongoing reductions for others have left the state with less money to spend on anything. And though Brownback dutifully avoided K-12 funding in his proposed $280 million in current-year budget cuts and fund transfers, education takes such a large chunk of the budget that it cannot be spared easily or for long. The budget cutters will go where the money is going.
Add to this mix a possible ruling from a three-judge panel in Topeka, due any day now, that the state is shortchanging schools, and Kansas may be facing not only a budget mess but a constitutional crisis. Happy New Year.
For the editorial board, Rhonda Holman