Why Sam Brownback is not an education governor

Gov. Sam Brownback visited a Johnson County school to push for all-day kindergarten.
Gov. Sam Brownback visited a Johnson County school to push for all-day kindergarten. The Kansas City Star

Facing a tough road to re-election, Kansas Gov. Sam Brownback is fighting to brand himself as an education governor.

His campaign this week accused a rival group of committing “bold-faced lies” when it accused him of cutting education funding. On the contrary, Brownback says, he has increased school funding by record amounts.

“One of the myths is that you can’t cut taxes and invest in education,” the governor said at a campaign event on Friday.

Actually, the Brownback camp is spinning a myth.

While many states have begun to replenish school funding after the recession, Kansas is held back by the devastating income tax cuts that have drained the state’s treasury without yet producing the promised economic growth. The money school districts rely on to make their payrolls, purchase classrooms supplies and meet other day-to-day expenses is $548 less on a per-student basis than it was six years ago, when funding reached a high mark.

That’s in real dollars. Adjusted for inflation, the picture looks even worse.

In a lengthy analysis, Mark Tallman, an official with the Kansas Association of School Boards, put it this way: “When measured against changes in the cost of living, funding for educational programs that can actually be spent on teachers, administrators and student support programs has declined by $500 million since 2009.”

Brownback makes his claims of “record school funding” based on increased contributions to the pension system for school employees and more money for school districts to meet building and other capital costs.

Indeed, Brownback deserves credit for progress on shoring up the state’s long-troubled pension fund. But being a “pension governor” isn’t the same as an education governor.

And even the existing funding is precarious. Some analysts believe the overall state of the Kansas budget is so tenuous that Brownback may have to make cuts in this fiscal year. If that happens, schools will have to get by with less.

A few months ago, Brownback was touring elementary schools and proclaiming the need to move toward universal all-day kindergarten. He’s right. Kansas needs to make that investment.

Reading to kindergarteners makes for a great photo op, but the governor’s priority was a pipe dream and everyone knew it. Kansas cannot afford that level of investment in its children, and the biggest reason is the Brownback income tax cuts.