What’s The Matter With Kansas Education Policy?

Jeff Bryant

Since “The Wizard of Oz,” the term “we’re not in Kansas anymore” has been shorthand for saying we’ve changed the usual surroundings for a new, disorienting terrain. For school children who actually live in Kansas, that would likely be a relief.

Since the nation’s Great Recession, public education in Kansas has seen state funding cut repeatedly since 2009. This has left students and teachers in that state bereft of what would normally be viewed as “the basics” by anyone who has a modicum of understanding of how to run an effective school system, with swelling class sizes and elimination of basic programs like art, music and athletics.

Unfortunately, Kansas is not the only place in America where public school conditions are causing students to wish they could be transported to the yellow brick road.

For a short term, the federal government stepped in after the recession to provide some relief. But not only is that no longer available, sequestration budgets bit even deeper into what the feds were accustomed to providing to the nation’s public schools.

Even now, as some state budgets see some recovery, and national leaders agree on new appropriations (the few times they can), most public school budgets are still unable to get back to where funding levels were prior to the recession.

Fortunately, the American populace is increasingly angered by the financial calamity that has befallen their schools, and there are signs some politicians may have rude awakenings in upcoming elections this November and beyond.

What’s The Matter With Kansas?

Since the seminal book “What’s the Matter with Kansas?” by Thomas Franks, left-leaning people have been warned to pay attention to how conservative politics in the heartland resonates into nationwide trends.

This dynamic is especially acute in the public education arena.

In 2013, a report from the Center on Budget and Policy Priorities revealed that the majority of states – 38 – had responded to the Great Recession by severely slashing their education spending. But Kansas occupied a truly special place in the ranks of education cutting: the fourth worst, according to a Kansas-based news outlet.

That news report noted, “State aid to school districts was reduced by more than $400 million from the 2008-09 to the 2009-10 academic years … Kansas schools are about $100 million under budget, and cuts to education may have lasting effects on the quality of education.”

The predictable effects have indeed emerged. A report from the Kansas-based Kansas Center for Economic Growth found budget cuts have meant “classrooms are getting more crowded.” Since 2009, the state’s school population has grown by 19,000 students while the teaching force has 665 fewer teachers. The result: “Almost half of districts have seen their average class size grow.”

Per pupil spending, using the most recent available data from 2013, have decrease almost $1,000, and “96 percent of districts say base state aid per pupil for 2015 will be insufficient and say it has not kept up with increased costs to run schools.”

Another outcome of budget cuts: “Fewer extracurricular programs – About 30 percent of districts have reduced or eliminated athletic and non-athletic extracurricular activities, as well as arts and music programs.” A report on the cuts to music education in Kansas in 2011 found in the three years prior to the report, “185 music education positions had been cut” statewide.

And of course, students who are struggling with school the most get hit the hardest. The state cut millions of dollars earmarked for students at risk of falling behind or failing, even though the percentage of students deemed at risk in the state rose from just over 34 percent in 2009 to 43 percent in 2014.

Angry parents filed a lawsuit against the state government. The state’s obstinate governor, Sam Brownback, pushed the case all the way to the state supreme court, which ruled state education funding was at levels that were unconstitutional. So then Kansas lawmakers responded by passing a new bill that changed the states funding formula. It’s not yet certain how much relief this will provide to districts, and in the meantime, a new tax credit for corporate contributions to private school scholarships will send more public funds to private schools.

We’re All Becoming Kansas

Kansas is not the only state afflicted with such antipathy toward spending money on school children.

As USA Today recently reported, there are at least seven states that are as bad or worse than Kansas in their financial support of public schools. But even states that don’t qualify as “the lowest of the low” for school spending are funding public education at levels that are completely inadequate.

My own recent analysis, gleaned from numerous news accounts and research studies, identified billions of dollars cut from school spending in New York, Pennsylvania, North Carolina, Michigan, and Florida.

Just as in Kansas, angry citizens have taken legal actions against states because of inadequate funding levels since the recession – at least 14, according to one count taken at the end of 2013. More recently a lawsuit in the state of Mississippi upped the count to 15, as 30 more school districts indicated they may join a new legal action already in progress. Also, a high court in the state of Washington held state legislators in contempt for not adequately funding education

For a while, federal stimulus dollars helped stave off the carnage, but as a recent analysis by the website FiveThirtyEight revealed, “public schools are hurting more in the recovery than in the recession.”

Federal per-student spending fell more than 20 percent from 2010 to 2012 and continued to fall in 2013-2014. Title I was down 12 percent. Spending on disabled education went down 11 percent. No increases are coming from the feds for the 2015 school year.

A recent report from the Government Accounting Office found that federal cuts enacted in the 2013 budget “sequestration” severely damaged schools. According to reporters at Education Week, “across-the-board federal budget cuts last year forced some school districts to cut academic and after-school programs, scale back professional development, and delay physical and technology upgrades.”

This year, Congress has done nothing to restore the levels of federal spending that school children need.

While the Obama administration and some leaders in Congress have made early childhood education a priority (but still no funding to show for it), other urgent needs have remained off the agenda. For instance, a recent report found that little to no attention has been paid to adequately funding kindergarten – what most people think of as the first year of formal schooling. As Education Week reported, the analysis found, “Just 15 states require students to attend kindergarten. And while most states require districts to offer at least a voluntary half-day program … that half-day could be just a few hours.”

Federal authorities’ inattentiveness to school funding is especially shocking in light of the federal government’s increasing influence in K-12 education since the rollout of No Child Left Behind in 2002. The current Department of Education has been especially skillful at using incentives, punishments and a barrage of waivers to avoid the consequences of NCLB to coerce states into enacting all sorts of measures – such as new academic standards and teacher evaluations based on test scores. Yet the administration and Congress have done virtually nothing to coerce states to fund education adequately.

As Congress hastily wraps up the current legislative session – vacating Washington, D.C. until after November election – the only positive accomplishment lawmakers could show in the K-12 education arena was “bipartisan support” for a bill to fund education research.

The stopgap spending bill to keep the government funded until December 1 that passed the House will continue to keep federal education spending flatlined. Meanwhile, lawmakers – “with broad bipartisan support” – found all sorts of money to fund a program to train and equip Syrian rebel groups, ushering the nation’s entry into yet another quagmire in the Middle East.

What Will Voters Say?

In the upcoming November elections, the fate of numerous candidates for governor and state administrative and legislative offices may swing on education issues.

In Florida, Republican Governor Rick Scott has had to come out in favor of steep increases in education funding to stave off an opponent who still leads him in the polls. Nevertheless, his previous support of new Common Core standards has gotten him into trouble with the tea party faction.

In Pennsylvania, Republican Tom Corbett is likely “the most vulnerable governor in America”, according to a recent analysis in The Washington Post. ” Education spending cuts is one big reason he’s faced a backlash,” that analysis concluded.

In Kansas, Brownback also faces a backlash from voter anger of harsh spending cuts in education. “With the election less than three months away,” a recent report by Al Jazeera found, “a third of voters [say] that the results of the education debate will determine their vote.”

That report quoted Brownback’s opponent, Democratic state House Minority Leader Paul Davis, slamming Brownback at a recent rally for “the single largest cut to school funding in state history. People are seeing the larger class sizes, the fees that parents are having to pay. The test scores are going down.”

The attacks may be working. Davis led Brownback in three August polls, according to the Al Jazeera report. And a recent analysis by one political insider pronounced Brownback “vulnerable.”

Even elected officials at the federal level who neglect education may be more at risk to voter wrath than usual.

According to a recent Education Week analysis, “Education policy issues are at the heart of a handful of highly competitive U.S. Senate races that could help determine which party controls the chamber next year.”

The article cited examples from North Carolina, Georgia and Iowa where “education policy has fueled fierce attack ads and detailed exchanges at candidate debates and forums.”

If these trends continue, it’s not school kids but the elected officials who have cut those children’s support who may be waking up on November 5 realizing they aren’t in Kansas anymore.

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