Changing his tune? Brownback announces education cuts

Brownback and Colyer greet the crowd at their 2010 launch party. Photo courtesy of Associated Press.

Brownback and Colyer greet the crowd at their 2010 launch party. Photo courtesy of Associated Press.

“Just so everybody knows, we are not going to cut education.” Less than a month before the mid-term elections last year, this was Lt. Gov. Jeff Colyer’s message regarding the future of education in the event of a second term for incumbent Gov. Sam Brownback. Brownback and Colyer’s campaign focused on Brownback’s efforts to transform Kansas’ economy from a cash-bleeding slump into a job-building powerhouse, and Lt. Gov. Jeff Colyer eagerly spoke with the North Star staff about the administration’s successes.

But just a few months after the pair won the Nov. 4 election, they’re changing their tune. A recent Kansas City Star article revealed that as of March 7, the state’s budget for K-12 education will be cut by 1.5 percent and higher education funding will be cut by 2 percent, for a combined savings of $44.5 million. These cuts will come despite the state Supreme Court’s ruling in March 2014 that state funding for education is already unconstitutionally low (the Court did not establish an acceptable level of funding in its ruling).

In announcing the funding changes, which he referred to not as cuts but as “smaller than expected” increases, Brownback was quick to note that the state is still funneling $20 million more into higher education and $177 million more into K-12 education than it did last year. He also attempted to justify the cuts by using Sumner Academy’s purchase of a $48,000 grand piano as an example of wasteful school spending and, by extension, proof that schools have plenty of excess funds to counterbalance reduced state support. Still, questions remain: how could the budget shortfall that spurred the cuts have escaped the administration’s notice up to this point? When we spoke with Colyer in October, he insisted that Kansas finances were improving.

“State revenues aren’t going down. They’re actually up,” Colyer said. “What you’re seeing is, every six months, there’s a group that estimates what state revenue would be. In one sense, we are lower than where we would have been because we cut tax rates for every Kansan, and the notion was to get more jobs. It takes a while for those jobs to happen. But in terms of revenues, in terms of income tax revenue right now, we’re actually collecting more than we were last year, and that’s because more people are working.” This statement contradicts evidence that income tax revenue has not only declined, but has fallen even below estimates made shortly after the governor won reelection.

Economists have expressed concern that Gov. Brownback’s tax cut plan will result in budget deficits and subsequent economic downturn. Cartoon by Consuelo Covington.
Economists have expressed concern that Gov. Brownback’s tax cut plan will result in budget deficits and subsequent economic downturn. Cartoon by Consuelo Covington.

Colyer further indicated that education funding has continually increased under Brownback, and that much of the additional state aid to schools over the past few years has gone toward starting pilot programs (such as technical education programs) run by individual school districts.

“One of the most successful things we’ve done is a technical education project so that anybody who wants to get a certificate, like a welder’s certificate or something, we’ll pay for it. Every school district has kind of treated it a little bit differently- a lot of schools are doing it within the school itself, others are partnering with a junior college. So the types of things that are in Goodland, Kansas are different than here,” Colyer said.

However, these programs fail to address one of the primary concerns of the four school districts–Kansas City, KS, Wichita, Hutchinson and Dodge City– that first sued the state back in 2010: a potential increase in performance disparities between students in high-income and low-income communities triggered by cuts in state funding. Multiple sources have also indicated that additional state spending on education is not going toward classroom instruction of any kind, but rather toward payments into the state’s pension system and capital improvement aid for districts. When these categories are not considered, current state support for Kansas schools is roughly $100 million lower than in fiscal year 2009.

Beyond pension payments, some of the increases in education funding have been used to create measures–such as new standardized tests first implemented in the spring of 2014– that will further assess student progress and the relative effectiveness of different programs. These tests, which caused much frustration among both students and teachers due to lost instruction time and technological issues, are intended to discover if putting more money into education will lead to better outcomes, or if the issues are more structural.

“It really varies quite a bit, but just starting to get those outcome measures is a big piece and we’re starting to demand those,” Colyer said. “A lot of it is very local. I’m not one of these that believes you need to do everything top-down. Blue Valley has grown up as one of the best places for education in America, and that’s because of the local community and not because of what Topeka did.”

At least for now, the Brownback administration is continuing to prioritize growing the economy by cutting both taxes and government spending.

“To ensure that there’s enough tax revenue to pay for education and other things, we have to have a growing economy. And that’s where the politics of this comes in is, how do you get the economy to grow? The governor’s perspective is very much a Reagan perspective, which is that private sector people working is the best way to grow the economy,” Colyer said. “There are a lot of people that are concerned, you know, about those revenues, and we have had to make hard decisions on this.”

Still, Colyer said, “We’re very pro-education.”