Grading the Legislature on Education

Grading the Legislature on Education

The 2018 Kansas Legislative Session has ended and the campaign for the 2019 session officially begins June 1 when candidates must file if they plan to run in Democratic or Republican primaries. It’s a good time to take stock of what happened to the state’s biggest responsibility: public education.

Under orders from the Kansas Supreme Court to correct constitutional issues of adequacy and equity, the Legislature has added $400 million in state funding spread over two years (the school year just ending and next year) and committed to an additional $400 million spread over the following four years.

To pay for that increase and fund other state programs, the Legislature also repealed most of the 2012 income tax cuts last session and did not pass another income tax cut this year.

Some legislators argued the additional education funding will not be enough to satisfy the courts and support the state’s educational needs. Others argued it was far too much. Here are some facts.

The $400 million will have increased school funding nearly 10 percent since 2017, the largest increase in almost 10 years. However, when adjusted for inflation, school district general fund, special education and local option budget funding will still be lower than it was a decade ago.

School districts increased teacher salaries an average of $1,200 or about 2.2 percent this year and a similar amount is likely next year. That was the largest increase since 2009. However, it will still leave teacher pay far behind inflation since 2010. According to the National Center for Education Statistics, average Kansas teacher salaries have declined by $4,200 since 2010 when adjusted for inflation.

In 2017, Kansas teacher salaries trailed Iowa by almost $7,500, Nebraska by $4,300, and Missouri by $300, exceeding only Colorado and Oklahoma among our neighboring states. The new funding will help Kansas schools be more competitive, but certainly not close the gap.

Increased funding allowed school districts to add nearly 900 jobs last year, mostly teachers, classroom aides and special education paraprofessionals. However, that is less than half of the total school positions cut since 2009, while enrollment has increased by 25,000 students.

The increased funding equals about $800 per pupil over a two-year period. It is expected to help Kansas make up some lost ground compared to other states. Kansas per pupil funding from all sources was $311 lower than the national average in 2009 but dropped to almost $1,200 lower in 2015, falling from 24th in the United States to 31st. National statistics from other states are not yet available for 2016 and 2017, but because general state aid was frozen under block grant system, Kansas likely fell further behind.

The Legislature also commissioned the first new independent education cost study since 2005. That study made three critical findings. First, higher funding IS strongly correlated with higher student outcome (test scores, graduation rates). Second, Kansas school districts are highly efficient – among the best in the country. Third, 2017 school funding was between $1.7 billion and $2.0 billion short of what it would cost to meet the state’s highly ambitious educational goals, which would exceed every other state if achieved.

The new study was validated by an independent peer review, which also found it consistent with a previous study done by the Legislature’s Post Audit agency and cited as evidence in the school finance court case.

These studies are not the only evidence that additional funding will support higher educational outcomes. The states that do better than Kansas on national measures provide more total revenue than Kansas. Until 2009, Kansas K-12 funding consistently exceeded inflation and educational levels have consistently improved: high school completion, college participation and postsecondary attainment is at an all-time high.

Finally, the 2017-18 Legislature increased funding in targeted programs that have proven effective in raising student outcomes, including preschool, mental health services, the Jobs for America’s Graduates program that helps at-risk students complete high school and providing free testing programs for college and career readiness.

Restoring tax revenues and a strengthening Kansas economy also allowed the Legislature to reverse previous cuts to higher education, reduce transfers from highway funding and make up missed payments in the underfunded school retirement system.

While no one wants to pay more taxes than necessary, it should be noted that the state income tax rates are still lower than before 2012. Based on new state revenue and economic projections, total state general spending will remain lower compared to total state personal than any year since 1988. In fact, since the Legislature partially restored tax rates last year, state personal income is growing faster than any time since BEFORE the 2012 tax cuts took effect, and the state’s credit rating has been upgraded.

In other words, over the last two years the Kansas Legislature was able to reinvest in schools and other important programs, found more evidence that school funding increases educational outcomes and kept taxes and spending lower than Kansans previously supported. Now, the court and the voters will give their grades on that record.