In a number of venues, including his State of the State address, Gov. Sam Brownback has promoted Florida and Texas as states Kansas should strive to emulate.
Setting aside the sunshine and tourist attractions in those two states, do the majority of Kansans really want their state to be more like Florida or Texas?
Brownback’s main focus is on the fact that neither Florida nor Texas has a state income tax, a goal the governor also has set for Kansas. Eliminating the state sales tax, he maintains, will lead to new economic vibrance in Kansas and improve the general quality of life in the state.
So would Kansas be better off if it was more like Texas or Florida? Let’s look at a few figures. According to U.S. Census figures based on a three-year average from 2009 through 2011, Kansas already had a lower poverty rate (14.2 percent) than either Florida (15.2 percent) or Texas (17.7 percent). As of November 2012, Kansas also had significantly lower unemployment, according to the Bureau of Labor Statistics. Kansas unemployment stood at 5.4 percent, while Texas had 6.2 percent unemployment and Florida had 8.2 percent.
The Census also reports the median income in the states. The two-year average for 2010 and 2011 has the median income in Kansas ($48,827) barely below the median income in Texas ($48,902) and well above that in Florida ($45,281).
Although it’s difficult to measure the quality of public education in other states, we can at least look at graduation rates. According to the U.S. Department of Education the high-school graduation rate in Kansas for 2010-11 was 83 percent, compared with 71 percent in Florida and 86 percent in Texas.
Brownback has expressed a special concern about fourth-grade reading scores. According to the 2011 Nation’s Report Card compiled by the Department of Education, 71 percent of Kansas fourth-graders achieved the “basic” level in reading and 36 percent were “proficient.” Those scores were almost identical to the scores of Florida fourth-graders (71 percent basic and 35 percent proficient) but significantly higher than scores for Texas fourth-graders (64 percent basic and 28 percent proficient).
The state of Kansas education funding has come up recently in Missouri, whose Legislature is talking about trying to lower state income taxes to discourage businesses from moving to Kansas. Some Missouri legislators are enthusiastic about cuts, but others are more cautious. According to Sen. Paul LeVota, a Democrat who lives in Independence, Mo., and works in Lenexa, “The truth is, people leave Missouri and move to Kansas because of their schools, not because of their taxes. I don’t want to do something that is going to endanger the quality of life in Missouri.” However, LeVota also warned, “If we’re going to look at Kansas, they’re not doing good. They have cut, and they can’t fund their schools now.”
Many Kansans probably share LeVota’s concerns. They are proud of their public schools — schools that some Missourians apparently think are worth moving across the border for — and they also fear Kansas is “not doing good” when it comes to funding its schools, at least in part, because of efforts to cut taxes in the state.
Kansans almost certainly want to feel like they’re a step ahead of their neighbors to the east, but is aspiring to be more like Florida or Texas the answer? The numbers suggest that such a strategy would be a step in the wrong direction.