Governor Brownback, following up on a campaign position that school funding should be determined by the legislature, not the courts, has thrown the school funding problem to the Kansas House. That leaves our representatives playing semantics and parsing the Constitution ala President Clinton: “It all depends on what ‘IS’ [educated] means.”
Brownback is absolutely correct when he asserts that education is to the states what military defense is to the federal government. K-12 education takes 52 cents of every Kansas state tax dollar, about the same as in other states. And roughly 80 percent of school operating expenses go to salaries. So it is difficult to see where re-defining the education formula is going to save money without reducing the number of teachers and educational programs in Kansas.
Nevertheless, some are focusing on defining “suitable funding” as if that will take it out of the hands of the courts.
One group sees great opportunity to strip school funding down to the “Three R’s” of reading, ‘riting, and ‘rithmatic. We have made some after-school sports activities “pay to play.” Why not propose the same with anything outside this barren core. Some eyes glaze over at reducing nearly half the school to “pay to study” and cutting the state school budget by half!
Kansas schools cut over 1600 licensed and unlicensed staff positions last summer and a bigger cut is likely this next year. Those cuts appear to be more heavily from the arts and music. So why not cut school into one-half required essentials and one-half electives paid by parents?
With free and reduced lunches at record levels, we know that our middle class is shrinking and our lower class is growing. That means a larger number of students who could not afford more than the half day of so-called “essentials.” So if they cannot afford the music and art and shop and horticulture, they go home at noon?
Meanwhile, we have an increasing rate of dropouts. Many students remain in school because of sports, or art, or music, or shop. But the shallowness of this line of reasoning is that school is not just to learn to read and calculate, but to learn to read an array of literature and analyze problems, and yes, to experience art and music. Education is not just to make a living, but to have a life. If a new system for “suitable funding” of Kansas education only leaves rich Kansas students in art and music classrooms, we can be certain that our courts will find such a privatized public education system to be unconstitutional.
China crippled its education system by shutting it down for ten years: the Cultural Revolution. This mindset is “half a Cultural Revolution” and would leave us with a gap in more than music and art.
Fortunately, our representatives are constrained by legal requirements. The Kansas Constitution of 1861 provided... in Article 6, Section 2, “The Legislature shall encourage the promotion of intellectual, moral, scientific and agricultural improvements, by establishing a uniform system for common schools....” Today, the modern wording is even more direct: “The Legislature shall provide for intellectual, educational, vocational and scientific improvement by establishing and maintaining public schools....”
There is really no freedom for reducing education to the “Three R’s” when the requirement includes intellectual, vocational, and scientific.
And there are even more legal requirements imposed by a vast array of state and federal regulations, from disability acts to Title money requirements to Board of Regents Qualified Admissions criteria.
Whether you like it or not, the current school funding formula has one major advantage: it has passed judicial muster.
Any new funding formula will have to satisfy the courts as well.