Education agreement hurts Kansas schools

04/20/2014 4:59 PM

04/20/2014 4:59 PM

In March, the Kansas Supreme Court made it clear that Gov. Sam Brownback and the Legislature cut Kansas classrooms to “unconstitutionally low” levels. This was a victory for Kansas kids.

Our children can never reclaim the opportunities they were denied as a result of state budget cuts, but the ruling forced lawmakers to act after three years of stalling.

After heated debate, Kansas lawmakers reached an agreement in the final hours of the legislative session. I supported parts of this agreement enthusiastically.

The core of the bill was very similar to a proposal I offered, adding nearly $130 million to schools out of surplus revenues. Previous attempts to cut other areas of education were, for the most part, abandoned.

The maximum local option budget was increased, which is something I strongly support and will help Johnson County and other communities in the state.

These were positive advancements that I was eager to support, as were many other Democrats and moderate Republicans.

However, despite the pleas of parents and educators, legislative leadership refused to enact a clean, straightforward funding bill.

They insisted on “strings attached,” tying unpopular, partisan policy changes to essential dollars for our classrooms.

These policies included corporate income tax credits for private school scholarships, eased teacher licensure requirements, and eliminated due process for Kansas teachers.

What started as a fairly simple, bipartisan bill with more than 90 House votes morphed into a hyper-partisan ploy that garnered the bare minimum votes required to pass. I voted no, as did every other Democrat and moderate Republican.

It is also critical to remember that the question regarding overall school funding still looms. Kansans should be alarmed by a subtle but significant policy change that was quietly included in the final education bill. It lowers the minimum amount of funding required per pupil by over $650 per student — from $4,492 to $3,838.

Make no mistake: This is a pre-emptive effort by Brownback to sidestep future court orders to properly fund our schools. Despite new funding included in this bill, the governor is quietly setting the stage for lower school funding in the future.

The education cuts made in recent years have real consequences, including larger class sizes, closed schools, lower test scores and increased fees on parents.

Regardless of the court’s opinion on this matter, Kansas schools are operating at recession-era funding levels.

Our teachers are trying to prepare our kids to be successful in a 21st century economy with 1992-level base state funding. This does not reflect our Kansas values.

This really comes down to priorities. Schools are my priority — strong schools are the very foundation of a stronger economy. The opportunities our kids are provided in our public schools will affect their future opportunities and the future of our state economy.

I am concerned about the Kansas children who began kindergarten when the economy crashed. Those kids are now halfway through their K-12 years, and have experienced severe budget cuts. These kids have one shot at learning and growing in their formative years.

And, despite Brownback’s praise for the education bill, our commitment to those children has not yet been restored.

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