When Gov. Sam Brownback (R-KS) pledged to improve the lives of kids in his state on the campaign trail, this probably isn’t what he had in mind.
A pair of Kansas public school districts will close down early this school year and the state’s current leadership is so committed to continuing a radical, budget-destroying tax cut experiment that it won’t furnish the resources necessary to allow these communities to finish out the academic calendar.
“We are popular with the kids but not the parents,” Concordia district Superintendent Bev Mortimer told the Wichita Eagle after announcing that her schools will shut down six days earlier than planned. In the Twin Valley district, just south of Mortimer’s terrain, schools are closing down 12 days ahead of schedule. The districts are “losing $51 million they expected to receive for the current school year after Gov. Sam Brownback signed a school funding overhaul bill in March,” the paper explains. Brownback disputes that causal claim, but the school board in Twin Valley specifically referenced “mid-year, unplanned financial cuts recently signed into law.”
The early closures are a micro-level indicator of what’s really a macro-level problem across all of Kansas’ public services to its people. Brownback has followed through on a promise to all but erase the state’s income tax code, ditching all taxes on a class of businesses known as “pass-through entities.” Many of the people who rely on the pass-through structure for tax purposes are only businesses in the sense that they collect royalties for a book or other non-wage compensation from something that isn’t a standard payroll job, and a vanishingly small percentage of such tax entities are “small businesses” in the traditional, job-creating sense. But anyone who can present their income as “pass-through” cash to the state of Kansas can sidestep income taxes.
Brownback chased that major overhaul with other, more standard conservative tax-slashing policies, with the full pricetag for the near-total Reaganing of Kansas coming in over a billion dollars. The result has been massive deficits that endanger public services like roads, schools, and pension contributions for public employees. The only concession the governor has made to fiscal reality is proposing a combination of regressive sales tax hikes and higher “sin taxes” on cigarettes and alcohol.
On school funding, Brownback’s administration essentially stepped into a waist-deep hole with a grin and a shovel. Kansas had already slashed its spending on schools from 2009 to 2011 during the recession, as many states did as part of a scramble to maintain balanced budgets amid the downturn. And while Brownback has made nominal increases in state spending on education, the structures of those increases have undermined local governments’ ability to furnish school money themselves. The result is that total schools funding has been basically flat in inflation-adjusted terms ever since Brownback took over, despite a larger portion of all public education spending coming from the state level in his tenure. And with the block-granting move this spring, Brownback essentially pulled the plug on the complicated funding formula that is supposed to ensure more-or-less equitable funding for educating kids in both rich and poor districts.
From 2008 to 2014, Kansas has cut per-pupil spending by $950, more than all but two states. That roughly 16.5 percent cut in the resources available to educate Kansan kids has brought some dire consequences — like school nurses being told to put wet sponges in a freezer because real ice packs are just too expensive — and the ire of the state Supreme Court, which has ruled that Brownback is overseeing unconstitutionally low education spending.
None of this is paying off. The state’s economy is growing more slowly than the national average, and the poverty rate has risen steadily.