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Brownback fires back at New York Times
Journal-World readers may have noticed a letter to the editor today by Gov. Sam Brownback, firing back at the New York Times for an editorial they ran Oct. 13 criticizing his record on education funding.
Brownback's office sent it to Kansas newspapers because, officials said, the Times declined to publish it. The Times did not respond to our inquiries about why they turned it down. Some Kansas papers gave it a pass as well, including the Kansas City Star, where editorial page editor Mirriam Pepper told me they found some of Brownback's statements factually questionable. Plus, she said, the Star just doesn't run letters addressed to other newspapers.
Nevertheless, since it is running in this newspaper, it warrants some explanation.
The Times editorial, "Shortchanging Kansas Schoolchildren," was published the Sunday following oral arguments at the Kansas Supreme Court in the pending school finance lawsuit. In it, the Times noted that school funding in Kansas had been cut by both Democratic and Republican administrations in the wake of the Great Recession. But as the economy recovered and state revenues bounced back to near-normal levels, it was Brownback who decided to enact tax cuts instead of restoring funding to public schools. The Times said:
In signing a five-year, $3.7 billion tax cut, Gov. Sam Brownback took the position that cutting taxes did more to create jobs than meeting per-student aid formulas. That dodgy rationale was argued in the State Supreme Court last week when a group of school districts and parents sued for their fair share of aid under the State Constitution’s “suitable provision” mandate. State spending on education has fallen an estimated 16.5 percent since 2008, including $500 million in cuts under the Brownback administration, resulting in teacher layoffs and larger class sizes.
In response, Brownback makes a number of assertions that, at the very least, should be clarified.
Among those is the claim that "state spending on K- 12 education has increased by more than $200 million" since he was elected in November 2010.
According to Sara Belfry, Brownback's press secretary, that number comes from comparing total state spending in Fiscal Year 2010 — the last full fiscal year under Democratic Gov. Mark Parkinson — to the total state spending approved by the Legislature this year for Fiscal Year 2015, which begins next July.
The 2010 budget included $2.96 billion in state spending for the Department of Education. The 2015 budget calls for about $3.16 billion, an increase of about $200 million.
It should be noted, however, that about $29.5 million of that increase — nearly 15 percent of the increase Brownback claims credit for — occurred in FY 2011. That's the budget the Legislature approved in the spring of 2010, more than six months before Brownback was elected.
In addition, nearly $143 million, or 71 percent of the increase Brownback claims credit for is attributable to increases in the state's contributions to KPERS, the Kansas Public Employees Retirement System. Although a legitimate part of the total cost of running a school system, or any other enterprise, it is not money that schools themselves have at their disposal to invest in classroom education.
A much different picture of education spending under Brownback's administration emerges simply by picking different starting and ending points.
For example, if we compare the budget that was in place when Brownback was sworn into office, Fiscal Year 2011, to the current fiscal year, total state spending has actually been cut by nearly $24 million. Or if we compare this year's budget to FY 2012, the first budget Brownback signed into law, state general fund spending on schools has decreased by nearly $100 million.
Brownback attributes that to "the result of federal stimulus funds that expired in Fiscal Year 2011."
True enough. But the assumption behind the federal stimulus package all along was that it was temporary aid to state governments that were reeling from revenue losses during the Great Recession. As the economy recovered and state revenues rebounded, Congress intended to pull back on stimulus spending, assuming that states would refill the hole with their own money.
In the case of stimulus spending for education, Brownback and the Republican-led Legislature made a conscious decision not to do that. Instead, they opted to leave the hole empty and enact tax cuts instead. It's an idea predicated on their firm belief that the tax cuts will spur economic growth, which they consider to be the state's highest priority right now.
People can agree or disagree with that economic theory. We'll all find out soon enough whether the plan works. In the meantime, Brownback's claim that his administration has increased state funding on education by $200 million is just one particular way of spinning the numbers.