The 2020 election day is next week, but people have been voting for weeks and close contests may not be decided until weeks later. Here are some of the top issues that will be affected by the results of those elections.
How do candidates stand on these issues? Although Democrats and Republicans tend to vote like others in their party, there are many exceptions on individual issues. Beyond a party label, voters can learn more by looking at a candidate’s background, past voting record if any, stated views – or if possible, just ask them.
Will Kansas continue to fund the school finance plan accepted by the Kansas Supreme Court in the Gannon case?
In a series of rulings over several years, the Kansas Supreme Court found the state school finance system unconstitutional. Following the Great Recession of 2008-09, the Legislature and Governor approved a series of education funding cuts and freezes both for equalization aid for school building capital outlay, bond payments and local option budgets, and for base state aid per pupil. The court said this caused the system to be both inequitable and inadequate.
In response, the Legislature restored full funding for the equalization formulas and approved what is scheduled to be a six-year phase-in of base increases that restore funding to inflation-adjusted 2009 levels. Base increases have been approved through the 2022-23 school year (this is 2020-21). After that, the base is to be automatically increased each year at the rate of inflation. The final plan passed with strong bipartisan support, as well as support from KASB and most education organizations.
However, current projections show Kansas is facing state general fund deficits of hundreds of millions of dollars NEXT year (Fiscal Year 2021-22) due to the economic impact of the COVID-19 pandemic. Updated projections will be released Nov. 6. The next Legislature will have to approve a budget based on those estimates, working from a proposal submitted by Gov. Laura Kelly at the start of the session.
Some relief could come from increased federal pandemic aid to state and local governments, supported by Congressional Democrats but so far blocked by the Administration and Senate Republicans.
Tough choices for the Legislature could include:
- Protect and increase education funding as planned, likely resulting in much deeper cuts in the rest of the budget (K-12 state aid is just over half of the state general fund).
- Freeze or reduce base state aid funding, and/or reduce equalization aid to districts (which affects lower wealth districts more than high wealth) or reduce spending authority for local programs so all districts are affected equally. Depending on the action, the Supreme Court, which has retained jurisdiction over the implementation of Gannon, could intervene.
- Raise some combination of state taxes to increase revenue, always generally unpopular, and especially with more conservative voters and Legislators.
How will the state balance funding programs like preschool, K-12, higher education, social services, and infrastructure with tax policies?
Perhaps the most basic political debates are: how much should government do, and how should we pay for it? It is a debate because, according to polls, most people want the same or better governmental services (schools, streets and roads, protection, whether national defense or police, some kind of basic social safety net, and personal benefits like social security). But they also want to pay less in taxes that support those services.
As noted, K-12 education aid takes up just over 50 percent of the state general fund budget, as it has for over 25 years. The second largest area of the budget is social service spending, which has grown due to federal matching requirement for programs like Medicaid, but many feel that this has not kept up in areas like mental health, foster care and other programs for Kansans with special needs. The Governor supports and the Kansas House has passed a bill to expand Medicaid in the state. The third largest area is higher education funding for state universities and aid for public community and technical colleges and Washburn University. The fourth largest is public safety, including the prison system and juvenile justice. These four areas account for almost 95 percent of state general fund spending.
Calls for more funding for – or just preserving – these state programs will be countered by advocates for business tax cuts, reducing or eliminating the state sales tax on food, and reducing property taxes, especially in rural parts of the state.
In general, Republicans have been more supportive of cutting or slowing the growth of spending to broadly reduce taxes, while Democrats have been more supportive of enhancing governmental services and more limited tax cuts. However, members of both parties came together over the past four years to repeal deep state income tax cuts to restore funding for many state programs, and passed a school finance plan.
How will the state balance local decision-making with state requirements?
Another fundamental debate: what decisions should be made by local officials (school boards, cities, and counties), by state officials (mainly the Legislature) and by the federal government? During the COVID-19 pandemic, many Republican leaders opposed some of Governor Kelly’s statewide orders and during the special session re-wrote the emergency management law to allow counties to “opt out” or modify statewide orders. Attorney General Derek Schmidt has opined that school boards also have authority to exempt themselves from these orders.
The Legislature is expected to reconsider the state emergency response laws in the next session, and with the controversy over school closings, K-12 education powers will likely be a part of that discussion.
Some possible topics? Tougher anti-bullying policies, LGBTQ rights and transgender student restrictions, improving services to foster care students, more oversight of school discipline policies, dyslexia education, more directives on how schools spend their funding, and more scrutiny of school district cash balances.
KASB supports the principal of local accountability to voters, while recognizing school districts must be responsible for meeting certain state standards.
How will the state define and enforce school accountability?
Most school leaders saw the Gannon decision as a “win” because it resulted in increased funding. But that increase was based on the idea that more funding would equal better student outcomes. Although increased funding only began two years ago (2018), some legislators are impatient for results. Some measures (state assessments, ACT results) have been flat or declining. School closures associated with COVID are expected to set back student learning, especially among the most “at risk” students.
Also tied to increased funding was a series of Legislative Post Audit studies. Last year, LPA said the State Board of Education wasn’t providing enough oversight of about $400 million in “at-risk” funding; this year LPA raised questions about the effectiveness of bilingual funds; and an audit of school district cash balances is under way.
Especially if funding is tight, expect the Legislature to raise more questions about how districts are using funds and what results they are getting. And the results themselves will be debated. The State Board has been putting emphasis on graduation rates and attainment of postsecondary credentials, while some legislators have placed more emphasis on state and national test scores. KASB supports the State Board Kansans Can vision and outcomes.
Will the state (or federal government) expand funding for non-public education programs?
Over recent decades, there has been a growing push by some conservative Republicans to provide direct or indirect funding for non-public schools with the idea it will allow more families to choose a private school. In most cases, however, the “choice” ultimately rests with the school, based on the programs it offers and the students it accepts. President Trump’s Secretary of Education, Betsy DeVos, has been a long-time supporter.
Kansas gives refundable tax credits for contributions to programs granting private school scholarships to a limited number of low-income students. Other states provide more direct aid to private schools (vouchers or educational savings accounts), and some legislators and organizations have been pushing to expand such programs in Kansas. This push may be enhanced by support from parents frustrated by public school closures.
KASB and most other educational groups oppose public funding of schools that do not have the same accountability requirements as public schools, including serving all students.
Will the Legislature attempt to amend the state constitution?
There have been several efforts by Republicans in the Legislature to amend the state’s constitution in recent years. Such amendments require a two-third majority in both the House and Senate, then approval by a majority of voters in a statewide election. High profile amendments have been blocked by Democrats and some moderate Republicans, so the final results of legislative elections will help determine if this has changed.
After the Supreme Court decisions on school finance, amendments to the education article of the State Constitution have been proposed to try to limit the court’s role in determining how much money is required to be “adequate.” A new battle between the court and Legislature over school funding would renew such proposals.
In response to other controversial decisions, there have been efforts to change the way Kansas Supreme Court justices are appointed. Currently, the Governor must select from a list of three names chosen by a panel of lawyers and public representatives. There have been proposals to allow the Governor more ability to pick justices, but also require the Senate to approve appointments, similar to the federal system.
KASB opposes changing the state constitution to limit the ability of the courts to enforce suitable education funding based on adequacy and equity.
These are among the critical issues that will be determined by the outcome of the 2020 election, so it is important that everyone’s voice be heard at the ballot box. But selecting the people for state and federal office is not the final step.
After the election, school leaders must build or continue to develop relationships with your elected representatives as a trusted source of information and perspective. Determine your own set of priorities for the upcoming Legislature, Congress and the State Board of Education, and formally share it. Seek and answer questions about your district’s strategies for safe operations, financial issues and addressing student needs. Stay current on political developments so you can respond. And let KASB know how we can help.