In 2012, tea party-aligned legislators in the reliably red state of Kansas, backed by deep-pocketed outside groups, were able to purge Republicans they viewed as insufficiently devoted to Governor Sam Brownback’s right wing agenda. Since then, Kansas, like North Carolina, has become a test bed for conservative policy-making.
Deep spending cuts to education, health care and other social services were central to that agenda. And this month, the Kansas Supreme Court is expected to issue a ruling in a lawsuit precipitated by those cuts which could have profound consequences for public education in America.
Kansas, like every state, explicitly guarantees a free public education in its Constitution, affirming America’s founding belief that only an educated citizenry can preserve democracy and safeguard individual liberty and freedom.
And yet in recent years Kansas has become the epicenter of a new battle over the states’ obligation to adequately fund public education. Even though the state Constitution requires that it make “suitable provision” for financing public education, Gov. Sam Brownback and the Republican-led Legislature have made draconian cuts in school spending, leading to a lawsuit that now sits before the state Supreme Court.
The outcome of that decision could resonate nationwide. Forty-five states have had lawsuits challenging the failure of governors and legislators to provide essential resources for a constitutional education. Litigation is pending against 11 states that allegedly provide inadequate and unfair school funding, including New York, Florida, Texas and California.
Many of these lawsuits successfully forced elected officials to increase school funding overall and to deliver more resources to poor students and those with special needs. If the Kansas Supreme Court rules otherwise, students in those states may begin to see the tide of education cuts return.
Kansas’ current constitutional crisis has its genesis in a series of cuts to school funding that began in 2009. The cuts were accelerated by a $1.1 billion tax break, which benefited mostly upper-income Kansans, proposed by Governor Brownback and enacted in 2012.
Overall, the Legislature slashed public education funding to 16.5 percent below the 2008 level, triggering significant program reductions in schools across the state. Class sizes have increased, teachers and staff members have been laid off, and essential services for at-risk students were eliminated, even as the state implemented higher academic standards for college and career readiness.
Read on to see what steps the Kansas legislature may take if the court rules against it.
Budgets are a reflection of priorities, and it’s worth noting that some states are taking a very different approach. This week, California Governor Jerry Brown proposed increasing spending on pre-K education by $22 billion over the state’s 2011-2012 budget. According to the Los Angeles Times, “schools that serve low-income students and non-native English speakers will receive more money under the formula… Under Brown’s plan, LAUSD would see its per-pupil funding jump from about $7,700 per student per year to $12,750 by the end of the decade.”