Kansas Gov. Sam Brownback (R) signed a bill on Monday that restores $129 million in education funding to low-income districts that the state had illegally shortchanged for years, according to the Kansas Supreme Court. But rather than celebrating, educators around the state are blasting the measure for cutting other vital student funding and imposing a series of policy changes that will undermine teachers.
Rather than actually raising education spending, the bill cuts state aid for at-risk students and low-performing students to free up the money for restoring poorer schools’ budgets. “They took it from Peter to pay Paul,” said John Robb, one of the attorneys working to force the state to fund education adequately. As a result, the bill won’t actually improve funding at many schools. Public schools in Kansas City will “come out about $16,000 ahead” after the accounting gimmick is done, one official told the Los Angeles Times.
While cold comfort for public school students, the law includes a boon for private schools. It gives corporations tax breaks for contributions to private school scholarship funds, which could cost taxpayers up to $10 million per year. That new gimmick is typical of Brownback’s policy agenda, which has consisted mainly of tax breaks targeted to the well-off and conservative social and economic policies.
Lawmakers also tacked on a provision ending teachers’ due process rights to an appeal hearing when they are fired, something that teachers’ unions say will not only hurt current Kansas educators but make it harder to recruit top-quality teachers down the road. The policy changes unrelated to spending were reportedly tacked on quietly in a surprise committee meeting and then hastily voted on in a late-night session, adding to the frustration for parents and teachers who thought they had just been granted a major funding victory by the courts.
The case revolves around a years-old court finding that Kansas’ education budget was unconstitutional after the state canceled a program that doled out extra funding to parts of the state where tax collections are too low to adequately fund schools. The change dropped statewide per-pupil spending on education from about $4,500 to less than $3,900, the fourth-sharpest drop in spending on students of any state during the Great Recession. Schools in lower-income tax districts were left scrambling, with one Kansas City elementary school going so far as to replace its nurse’s ice packs with frozen kitchen sponges.
The cuts eventually left poorer schools $440 million shy of the level of funding required by the state’s constitution. Brownback’s fellow conservatives appealed that original ruling, and last month the state Supreme Court affirmed the lower court’s logic but applied a different funding formula for determining the size of the shortfall.
That ruling was “a great day for Kansas kids,” according to one plaintiff’s attorney, but the bill Brownback signed on Monday deflated that enthusiasm. “It’s going to widen the gap between the haves and the have-nots,” Wichita school district lobbyist Diane Gjerstad told the Wichita Eagle.