Topeka The upcoming fight over whether to cut more from the state budget or raise taxes to make up for lost revenue will inevitably focus on public school funding.
State spending on schools makes up half of the state budget. The Kansas Constitution requires adequate and equitable funding. A bruising legal and political battle several years ago forced lawmakers to pump more dollars into classrooms and overhaul the way funds were spent.
Now with tax revenues falling, Gov. Mark Parkinson and the Legislature have decreased school funding repeatedly during a time when enrollment, the number of at-risk students and the demand for higher academic achievement are all increasing.
Enough, says the Kansas National Education Association.
The union is calling on the Legislature to stop cutting the budget and roll back tax breaks.
“Part of the reason we’re in this financial crisis is the irresponsible tax policy of state lawmakers who gave away billions in tax breaks and incentives,” said KNEA President Blake West.
“We cannot continue to cut our way out of this financial crisis. We’re in a hole. Stop digging,” he said.
On Tuesday, Parkinson announced $259 million in cuts and transfers to balance the current fiscal year budget.
Schools were hit hard. Parkinson cut funding $36 million and refused to address the $156 million that budget experts said was needed to handle increased costs and enrollment this year.
The actions have lowered general state aid to schools to 2006 levels, which officials have repeatedly said represents the floor. That is because going any lower could jeopardize federal funding to schools under the American Recovery and Reinvestment Act, unless the state seeks a federal waiver.
One group of lawmakers — the Legislative Education Planning Committee — has adopted a recommendation that the state refrain from seeking such a waiver.
But when Parkinson was asked whether the latest cut to schools would be the last one he would approve, the governor said he couldn’t make that commitment.
But now the 2006 level is in question.
In a discussion before the House Appropriations Committee, Chairman Kevin Yoder, R-Overland Park, noted that total spending on schools remains nearly $300 million more than in 2006.
“It’s helpful to talk about all the dollars,” Yoder said.
Parkinson’s budget director, Duane Goossen, said it’s more complicated than that.
General state aid to schools is back to the 2006 level, he said. Meanwhile, what is called supplemental aid, special education funding and funding for the public school portion of the state retirement system are all up. But cutting back in any of those areas is problematic, he said.
Cutting any more from special education funding will jeopardize all federal assistance in this area, Goossen said.
Cutting from supplemental aid, which is designed to help the poorest districts, affects balance of aid. “It affects the school districts that can least afford it,” he said.
And cutting back on contributions to the retirement system would further hurt a pension system that already is reeling from losses during the recession, Goossen said.