Gov. Brownback and friends continue to claim that the state’s former school finance formula was junked because it was “too difficult to understand.” On that thin reed of an excuse – a lie, actually – the law was scrapped; state funding for schools was cut $100 million and the balance frozen. The remainder was divvied among the 286 local districts in the form of stand-alone block grants based on their previous spending – with no allowance for shifts in population or enrollment, local economies, needs for repair or maintenance.
Those who felt short-changed were invited to come to Topeka and beg (grovel) for more. A lot did. They found themselves appealing to a panel of the very people who had created the new law in the first place. At times they faced stern lectures on managing money and frugal living, or pointed questions about spending habits – an odd scene, since the panel was composed of a governor and legislators who had led the state into a drowning pool of red ink.
Nonetheless, the Capitol’s dominant Republicans, propelled by a visceral loathing for local public education, replaced an equitable and efficient formula for financing schools, once held as a national model, with a crude throwback straight from Bumble the Beadle, Oliver Twist’s workhouse headmaster, the one who hated urchins for wanting more.
The old law, the one that had worked well, was approved in May 1992. It embraced several fundamental principles: a statewide, uniform property tax for schools and a central pool for distribution of revenues; local spending limits with some variation for exceptional costs (local option budgets); budgets were tied to the number of students to be educated, rather than district wealth; it added sales and income tax revenues to the funding pool; at the same time, it contained basic standards by which schools were to be measured for student achievement. The overall concept was that the state be seen as one district, its wealth to be shared for the education of all students, no matter the wealth or impoverishment of local circumstance. In effect, the law abolished some taxing authority for local school boards and set local wealth as state resource to be shared among rich and poor communities.
That’s not too difficult to understand. For more than 20 years, this law worked, with occasional tinkering to adjust for such matters as shifts in population or local economic stress. But Brownback and his far-right absolutists saw the chance to shift funding from public to private schools, and divert critics by abolishing the state income tax for select upper brackets.
A year ago this month, as dozens of districts lined up to appeal for increased aid, top Republican legislators abruptly changed the rules, sending letters demanding that school superintendents provide more information to show how their districts “used efficiencies to improve outcomes in the classroom.” They were given less than two days.
And so it went. The old law had been buried, and the new one was firmly in place. We know how things have gone since – the state budget deficits, the $300 million increase in sales taxes and user fees, the multi-billion dollar bond sales to shore up a looted retirement fund for public employees, the ceaseless raids on state highway funds, the increases in local taxes, and so forth.
Incumbent Republicans, now trying desperately to hold onto their seats in the Kansas House and Senate, have begun misleading narratives to cover why they voted the way they did. There are denials and obfuscations, white lies, anything to distort or confuse the fact that nearly every one of them followed the governor’s lead, out of fear, or ignorance, or both. Their talking points were (and are) scripted by ALEC, the far-right, Virginia-based think tank, their effort funded by the billionaire Kochs.
All the while, to cover deficits created by tax cuts for the rich, there were repeated cuts in Medicaid funding and money for state hospitals; the Highway Patrol was starved, the Departments of Revenue, Transportation, Health and Welfare were denied adequate funds and staffing; budgets for universities and colleges were hacked again and again; revenue sharing for cities and counties was abolished. For starters.
This and more has left the state near bankruptcy, following two downgrades for state bonds, and facing yet another court ruling that state funding for local schools is constitutionally inadequate. This could cost from $500 million to $800 million or more to make right. Where will the money come from?
Echo answers nothing. Republican legislators who caused this wreckage, or who played silent as the pillaging continued, are running for reelection, most claiming innocence in one way or another.
Even if believable, and most aren’t, these stories are the frantic tales of weak-minded legislators who thought only of pleasing their superiors or preserving their status, and never of those who sent them to the Capitol. The citizens who had placed in them their trust have received, if anything, a blank shrug or cold shoulder.
If you want more of the same, vote for them again. If you seek change, mark it. Then hope for an honest election.