Not surprisingly many folks at Kansas University are breathing a sigh of relief that Gov. Brownback’s proposed budget does not suggest further cuts to higher education, or at least appears not to. But I think that sense of relief may be a bit premature and misguided. Although the proposed budget does not provide for any direct cuts in university operating budgets it also does not solve university funding problems or leave the universities without serious indirect problems.
First, of course, the Legislature need not follow the governor’s suggestions. Folks seem to assume that now that we have a conservative Republican governor and Legislature they will work together and that the Legislature will enact whatever the governor proposes. Kansas, like every state, is divided not only by politics but also by geography, regional interests and special interests. Higher education funding is still an easy target for legislators and there is no assurance that the governor’s proposals will be enacted without change.
There’s a second danger that remains. Even if university operating budgets are not reduced in the coming fiscal year, this does not guarantee that the Legislature will not reduce state employee salaries or institute employee furloughs for all state employees. We should not forget that salary letters sent to university faculty and staff the past few years have specifically included the possibility of such cuts or furloughs.
The third danger universities face is that an effectively zero operating increase for another year means that deferred maintenance on university facilities remains inadequately funded. It also means that the state is doing nothing to deal with the radical increases in student tuition which continue to burden university students throughout the state. Maintaining the status quo in the state contribution to universities simply means that, as operating costs rise, students will continue to see their tuition rise. The cost of education continues to exclude more and more Kansans from the opportunities education provides.
The greatest threat to higher education in Kansas, however, is indirect. Although the proposed state budget does not cut university funding, the decision not to replace federal stimulus money for K-12 schools means radical cuts for primary and secondary education in Kansas. It’s hard to believe that further cuts in K-12 funding will not have a negative effect on the quality of education Kansas children receive.
The majority of KU students come from Kansas and go through Kansas schools. Damage done to the quality of primary and secondary education will produce students who are less prepared for the university. Universities, in turn, will have to cope with poorly prepared students through remedial classes. The quality of the university depends upon the quality of its students. When the state harms K-12 education, it harms universities as well.
Now is not the time to feel relief on the Hill. There are still major battles to be fought, and Kansas educators and all those who care about Kansas education must continue to fight to save our children’s future.