Gov. Sam Brownback’s feuds with schools harm Kansas

Students are back into the routine at Cedar Creek Elementary School in Olathe, Kansas, but turmoil over education funding continues.
Students are back into the routine at Cedar Creek Elementary School in Olathe, Kansas, but turmoil over education funding continues. skeyser@kcstar.com

Around Kansas, teachers and schoolchildren are settling into another academic year. Bus schedules have been worked out, fall sports have kicked off and learning is well underway.

But if things are going smoothly in the classrooms, you wouldn’t know that from news headlines and the grenades being lobbed by Gov. Sam Brownback’s office and the Kansas education establishment.

Brownback and allies in the Legislature are ramping up their campaign to convince the public that Kansas schools have plenty of money, despite reports of early school closings last year and districts pleading for a share of the dollars set aside for “extraordinary need.”

People who disagree with that assessment stand a chance of getting blasted in a group email sent to Brownback supporters by Melika Willoughby, the governor’s deputy communications director. In a recent missive, she took aim at “ever-litigating” school district attorneys and decried a system that forces the state to spend “millions more on new schools, administrative facilities and technology, while educators complain about the lack of operational funds.”

Apparently not content to limit the fight to the budget arena, Brownback also disclosed last weekend that he wants the controversial concept of merit pay for teachers to be part of a new school finance formula.

The hostile climate is damaging Kansas’ image and taking its toll on educators.

Topeka School Superintendent Julie Ford told her board this month she was retiring to spend more time with her family. But she added, “Never before have I experienced educators in Kansas reduced to so little and so undervalued by legislators and the governor.”

The rift is multi-faceted. Part of it is conservatives’ fury at ongoing litigation aimed at getting the state to spend more money on schools. Then there’s the determination by Brownback and his allies to emasculate the Kansas National Education Association and get rid of tenure and other teacher protections.

But more than anything else, Brownback needs for Kansas to hold down spending on education to preserve the centerpiece of his political career — the steep income tax cuts that decimated the state budget and have yet to live up to the governor’s promise they would act like a jobs engine.

Brownback talked like an education governor during his 2014 re-election campaign. He praised the work of Kansas schools and teachers and bragged about all the new funding he’d put into education, even though much of the increase didn’t reach the classroom.

But at his state-of-the-state address in January, Brownback blasted the school finance formula, saying it had been designed “to frustrate efforts at accountability and efficiency.” He successfully proposed replacing it with a two-year block grant that schools could use for daily expenses, teacher pension obligations and capital projects. Previously, all those functions had separate budgets.

Legislative committees are starting work on a new finance formula to replace the block grants. In the meantime, school leaders who complain about funding shortages are being told the block grants contain more money than the state has ever spent on schools.

That’s correct if you count pension payments, capital expenses and money spent to lower local property taxes. With those expenses added to money actually used in the classroom, Kansas is spending a record $4 billion on education.

But funding for the day-to-day operating expenses of schools has actually dropped over the last five years. The state spends $6 million less on general classroom aid than it did in the 2011 fiscal year. Its annual share of special education funding has also dropped by $6 million.

A truce in the education wars isn’t likely any time soon. Kansas is still cash-strapped, a number of lawmakers are innately hostile toward public education, and legal arguments in the long-running school funding case are scheduled for November.

But Brownback does his state no service by picking fights with school districts, as he did when he accused the Garden City School District of a big spending increase that hadn’t occurred.

In fact, the governor’s office frequently puts out incorrect and misleading information regarding schools and funding, stoking the tensions.

It would help if Brownback would acknowledge that schools face growing expenses for health care for employees and technology needs instead of relentlessly demanding “efficiencies” from districts that have operated on lean budgets for years.

Kansas schools give the state much to be proud of. The governor should be telling their story, not knocking them down.