Kansas education cuts among largest in the nation

? Direct state funding for public schools in Kansas is still nearly 15 percent less than it was before the start of the Great Recession, according to a report from the Center for Budget Policies and Priorities, a Washington think tank.

That makes Kansas one of 30 states where K-12 education funding still has not fully recovered, and it ranks fifth in the nation in terms of the percentage size of the cuts out of the 47 states examined.

Measured in inflation-adjusted dollars, the report said per-pupil spending in Kansas is $861 less than it was in 2008, the fourth-largest cut in the nation.

Those cuts, the center said, have slowed those states’ economic recovery because school districts, which are major employers in many communities, have not been able to rehire staff who were laid off. The cuts also undermine educational reforms, including new educational standards and new testing systems, that Kansas and other states are trying to implement, the center said.

“At a time when producing workers with high-level technical and analytical skills is increasingly important to a country’s prosperity, large cuts in funding for basic education threaten to undermine the nation’s economic future,” CBPC said in its report.

The Kansas Association of School Boards said those findings echo concerns that it and other school advocates have been raising, and will likely fuel the debate over the tax cuts enacted by Gov. Sam Brownback and the Kansas Legislature.

“If we are falling behind other states in school funding, we must be deeply concerned about falling behind in preparing students for success in postsecondary education and the workforce,” said KASB lobbyist Mark Tallman.

The CBPP analysis looked at “funding distributed through states’ major education funding formulas” and adjusted the figures for inflation. That excludes state funding for capital expenses, bond and interest payments or employee retirement accounts.

The issue of education cuts has been a major bone of contention between Gov. Sam Brownback, who claims that “total” education spending has increased each year of his administration, and his Democratic challenger Paul Davis, who accuses Brownback of making “the largest single cuts to school funding in state history.”

“Kansans don’t need a Washington D.C.-based liberal think tank distorting the truth about education funding in Kansas. They can hear the truth straight from Kansans,” Brownback’s press secretary Eileen Hawley said.

Brownback’s claim is based on the total spending figures, which include the state’s contributions to the Kansas Public Employees Retirement System on behalf of school employees. Davis’ claim is based on base state aid to public schools, which makes up each local district’s general fund that pays for daily operating expenses.

Kansas began cutting budgets in 2008, under then-Gov. Mark Parkinson, a Democrat, when state revenues began to plummet following the collapse of the financial industry and national housing market that fall. They continued in 2009 after Gov. Sam Brownback, a Republican, took office.

Early in 2009, though, Congress passed a stimulus bill which, among other things, gave financial assistance to state governments to shore up their budgets and prevent them from having to cut programs, particularly in education and Medicaid.

But that money was intended to be only temporary. Congress began phasing out the aid in 2011 and 2012 as the economy improved, expecting states to replace that money as their own revenues recovered.

In Kansas, though, the Brownback administration chose not to replace the federal education aid and, instead, to push for massive income tax cuts that he said would stimulate the economy even more.

The base aid formula was allowed to fall to $3,780 per-pupil in fiscal year 2012. Funding has grown slightly since then and is now set at $3,856.

The Legislature’s nonpartisan Research Department now says that because of the tax cuts, the state will likely face a $238 million budget shortfall in fiscal year 2016, which begins next summer.