Archive for Sunday, April 15, 2001

Education and economy

April 15, 2001


High quality schools at all levels are a necessary component to preserving and raising the state's economic status.

Throughout this nation's history, education has been viewed as the great equalizer. Educational opportunities lead to economic opportunities.

In the last week, the state of Kansas has received disappointing financial news. State revenues are expected to be more than $200 million short of covering the Legislature's budget for fiscal year 2002, which begins July 1. The weak revenues, officials say, are an indication that the state's economy is slowing down.

As tempting as it may be, now is not the time for the state to curb its commitment to education.

Failing to invest in public education could easily send the state economy into a greater downward spiral. Without high-quality K-12 schools and a strong system of higher education, the state won't produce the workers it needs to attract business and build its economy.

Good public schools are important not only because they produce good students ready for employment or advanced training, but because they attract companies that want their employees to have the benefit of high-quality schools. When those students graduate, some will need well-equipped, cutting-edge community colleges and vocational-technical schools to prepare them for their careers.

Other students will be gearing toward a university education. State universities still provide an affordable opportunity for higher education in Kansas. But the quality of that education must be preserved by paying salaries that will help retain top faculty members and support staff.

State universities are valued for the educational opportunities they provide, but the benefits the state reaps from university research often are overlooked. The ability to produce and capitalize on research being done at Kansas universities has a direct impact on the state's economic future.

That's why it's so disappointing to hear legislators talk about balancing the budget by squeezing money out of university budgets and delaying needed infusions of money into both higher education and public schools.

During a visit to the Journal-World this week, House Speaker Kent Glasscock looked ahead at how legislators will deal with the revenue shortfall news when they return to Topeka later this month.

Various funding sources are likely to be tapped, he said. The governor has proposed adding staff to the Department of Revenue to step up delinquent tax collections. Other pockets of funding may be tapped, Glasscock said, but it's extremely unlikely that either Republicans or Democrats will propose tax increases to fund the shortfall.

That means that little new funding will be available for education. For universities, Glasscock said he hopes to restore base funding for universities by returning to the current year's budget before it was refigured and reduced in the governor's budget proposal. He also hopes to restore the state's matching funds for a student-paid technology fee and provide overall salary increases of around 3 percent for state employees. And he hopes, but didn't seem particularly hopeful, that money can be found to fund the 6 percent increase in the faculty salary pool, approved as part of the Higher Education Coordination Act of 1999.

For public schools, Glasscock said he expects the Legislature to preserve the $50 increase in the state's per-pupil funding, but even the Speaker's own proposal to provide new funding for programs in kindergarten through third grade isn't likely to be approved.

Glasscock said this week that he was "reluctant to apply a long-term tax solution to a short-term problem" and explained that once the expenses of the current state highway plan and the higher education coordination act were "absorbed" into the budget, the revenue picture would ease.

That may be true, but new funding needs will come along, and education is likely to get shoved aside again. A shortage of funding for both public schools and higher education seems to be a chronic long-term problem for Kansas and one it must address if the state hopes to insure its long-term economic vitality.

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