Kansas Ends Its Experiment in Education Austerity – Thank Goodness

Kansas has been the poster child for tax cutting experiments, getting lots of attention to see if the strategy worked as promised. It didn’t, and its legislature put a stop to it.

In 2012 and 2013, Governor Sam Brownback pushed through income tax cuts and a new business tax formula that reduced rates to zero for certain types of firms.

Public schools suffered during the four+ years of impact. Kansas schools fell from 23rd in the nation for per pupil funding to 31st. Funding gaps grew, reserves were depleted, economic growth slowed compared with neighboring states, and the state’s credit rating was downgraded twice.

The turning point came as citizens felt the effects and raised their voices.

In March, the Kansas Supreme Court ruled school funding constitutionally inadequate. In May, the legislature passed a measure to restore some of the tax cuts and increase school spending. The Governor vetoed the bill. In June, the legislature overrode the Governor’s veto – in bipartisan fashion. The Supreme Court is to review this new plan soon and determine if it is adequate.

Amy Martin, president of the Kansas Association of School Boards, reacted to this year’s positive developments: “Supported by a new vision, new finance formula, new funding and improved accountability measures, Kansas public school education will mark an historic new day on July 1.”

We are in an era when cutting taxes and spending is the first goal. Dealing with the effects of those actions seems to be secondary.

It is appropriate to examine expenditures. No one wants to pay for ineffective services or shoddy work. But, providing an education costs money. Teachers should be paid well, facilities should be in good shape, buses need to be safe, instructional materials and new technologies are an ongoing expense.

There are more funding gaps to be filled than there is extra money in school district budgets. Spending for public education has been cut to the bone in recent years in many states. Too many have cut essential services. Just south of Kansas in my home state of Oklahoma the school week has been reduced to four days in many districts to deal with similar tax and spending cuts.

Supporters of Governor Brownback’s tax plan say it didn’t have enough time to work, and that more spending cuts were needed to match the tax reductions.

That’s the real danger going forward: the repeated message that more of this austerity will work if we only give it more time.

We need to base our decisions about federal, state and local budgets first on what is needed to have healthy, successful communities. It is my belief a positive message about big goals for people can win the day.

I hope the Kansas story is the first of many where people raise their voices and demand public investment in their schools, and in support of other services that touch everyone.

Public schools don’t need more time to test austerity; we need to seize this opportunity and to repeat the message about the positive returns on the investment in our children.

Timeline of the Kansas experiment as published by the Center on Budget and Policy Priorities


May 22, 2012

Governor Brownback signs tax cuts

Jan. 1, 2013

Tax cuts implemented

Fiscal Year 2013-14

Revenues fall $700 million

April 2014

Moody’s downgrades Kansas bonds

August 2014

Standard & Poor’s downgrades Kansas bonds

Feb. 2015

Governor cuts school funding

Early 2015

Kansas drains operating savings

March 2015

Lawmakers jettison school funding formula

May 2015

Schools close early in some districts

July 2016

Standard & Poor’s downgrades Kansas bonds again

Sept. 2016

State general K-12 aid down 13 percent since 2008

Oct. 2016

Job growth since tax cuts: Kansas 3.3%; U.S. 8.4%

Feb. 2017

Lawmakers vote to roll back tax cuts; Brownback vetoes

March 2017

KY Supreme Court: School funding too low

May 2017

Budget gap now at least $900 million

June 6, 2017

Lawmakers enact bill reversing most of the tax cuts over Brownback veto

About Debbie Wesslund

I served on the Jefferson County Board of Education, Louisville, KY, from 2007-2014 and continue to be an advocate for public schools. There’s a high-level dialogue about public education that swings from positive to negative, with many who seek the spotlight voicing an inaccurate picture of our public schools. Words matter. They get lodged in our public perceptions, creating a narrative that doesn’t reflect the real story. There’s so much more to public education, and much worth applauding in Kentucky and across the country. The stakes are high: public education is the most serious public business we are about as a community, a state and a nation. We must continually renew our resolve to support public education. There’s always more promise in building something up, than in tearing it down.
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