Brownback back-pedals on cutting education funding

TOPEKA, Kan. (AP) — Gov. Sam Brownback is proposing that Kansas backpedal on a much-ballyhooed increase in spending on public schools, just as he is asking fellow Republicans in the Legislature to slow down aggressive tax-cutting because of big budget shortfalls.

Brownback won praise from conservatives by successfully pushing lawmakers to slash personal income taxes in 2012 and 2013 to boost the state’s economy. He narrowly won re-election in November after noting that at the end of his first term the state committed to boosting aid to poor school districts, albeit under pressure from the courts.

The Kansas Supreme Court last year ordered the state to boost aid to poor districts and legislators complied. Brownback’s critics contend his proposals renege on the commitment, but his aides argue that the spending levels reflect what he and legislators believed the state would be spending.

The promise last year to poor school districts turned out to be more expensive than contemplated, just as state revenues flagged more than anticipated after the tax cuts. The state faces shortfalls totaling more than $710 million in the current budget and for the fiscal year beginning in July. Brownback’s spending recommendations would reduce education funding after setting a high-water mark in the current school year.

The governor and top aides contend he’s trying to stabilize aid to schools so lawmakers can rewrite an antiquated and confusing formula for distributing it. But his own budget numbers show a slight drop in overall aid for the next fiscal year and, when teacher-pension payments are excluded, a 3 percent decrease.

“We say it’s flat. Schools are going to say it’s a huge cut,” Shawn Sullivan, Brownback’s budget director, said during a recent interview.

The governor’s proposals on school funding accompany measures to slow future income tax cuts and dramatically increase the tobacco and alcohol taxes. He’s pushing legislators to junk the state’s entire school funding formula and distribute “block grants” to school districts while lawmakers create a new funding scheme.

Some educators and legislators say they’re puzzled by his proposals because he hasn’t spelled out the details of how dollars would be distributed without the current formula, which provides state funds on a per-student basis.

Brownback and other conservatives criticize the existing formula because it locks the state into additional spending if more students enroll — or for other reasons, such as more kids qualifying for free lunches or districts putting up new buildings. This year’s school-aid bill is $63 million more than lawmakers anticipated when they first set the current budget last spring, and such increases complicate efforts to keep reducing income taxes.

“When we have more students with higher needs, it costs more to educate them,” said Brian Smith, superintendent in Galena, a poor southeast Kansas district with about 840 students. “I just don’t trust what the future holds.”

Parents and other school districts sued the state in 2010 over education funding. In ruling last year in favor of poor districts, the Kansas Supreme Court didn’t say whether the state spends enough money overall on its schools, and in December, a lower-court panel said the state must boost annual spending by at least $548 million to provide a suitable education to every child.

The state provided about $3.5 billion in aid to districts outside of payments for teacher pensions during the state’s 2014 fiscal year, which ended June 30. The figure would jump to more than $3.7 billion under the current budget.

But in fiscal 2016, beginning in July, the figure would drop to about $3.6 billion, a decline of $113 million from the high-water mark. It would stay at $3.6 billion for fiscal 2017.

Brownback’s allies contend it’s unfair to portray the trend as a cut because the amounts for fiscal 2016 and 2017 exceed the aid for fiscal 2014. Senate budget committee Chairman Ty Masterson suggested that the governor’s critics are “myopically focused” on the changes from 2015 to 2016.

“It’s certainly not the whole truth,” said Masterson, an Andover Republican.

But Sen. Laura Kelly, the budget committee’s ranking Democrat, scoffed, “It is a cut.”

“You’re taking money out of the classroom,” she said.

 

 

Copyright 2014 The Associated Press. All rights reserved. This material may not be published, broadcast, rewritten or redistributed.

 

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