Politicians love false dichotomies. They want you to think you have to choose between compassion and carefulness, efficiency and effectiveness. In the Kansas school funding debate, there’s a line in the sand: Either you want to save quality education, or you want to balance the budget.
This is a fallacious way of thinking. Limiting the conversation to just two possible outcomes only divides those who disagree. The Gannon v. Kansas lawsuit has come before the Kansas Supreme Court time and again since 2010, with claims that various districts were underfunded or funded inequitably. But the numbers tell a different story.
Kansas’ 2018 Governor’s Budget Report showed state education funding at 63.2 percent of the general fund budget — out of $6.5 billion, over $4 billion is spent on schools. By comparison, Virginia budgeted just 34 percent of its state general fund for education, and Utah allotted 35 percent for 2019. Yet student performance is still lagging, at least according to conventional metrics. Kansas’ education system ranks near the middle of the pack in areas such as high school graduation rates and academic proficiency rates. State residents are, understandably, calling for a change.
So, Kansas faces two options: Enact a fiscally conservative funding plans, or make the supposedly morally superior decision to increase the budget for public schools. Ultimately, conservatives are backed into a corner and accused of caring about children less than the state’s bottom line.
It’s true that more money is often correlated with greater student success, but it’s not the only deciding factor. The right-leaning American Legislative Exchange Council confirmed this, pointing out the Washington, D.C., school district spends “more than twice the national average per student and yet ranks as one of the worst-performing school districts in the country.”
Throwing more funding at schools is simply an overused, ineffective attempt at a solution. It has been tried again and again, but the problem still isn’t solved. Ultimately, we need to hold Kansas schools accountable in order to efficiently use taxpayer dollars and provide quality education — and the best form of accountability is the free market.
We must take a chance on choice. Currently, Kansas has a small school choice program, the Tax Credit for Low Income Students Scholarship Program, which allows students in low-income, failing public schools to choose another school they think will help them succeed. This program is relatively new and has proven to be helpful, but it isn’t enough. The option to choose a school should be extended to all students.
Enhancing school choice would allow state funding to follow those who actually need it: the students. The 501(c)(3) nonprofit Kansas Policy Institute has calculated that barely half of 2018 state public school spending went to instruction, the rest pouring into the pockets of administrative staff and superintendents. Instead of trying to fix the problem by funneling more money into broken public schools, school choice provides a bottom-up method of funding. It has been successful in other states: Florida, for instance, is the poster child for school choice success. U.S. News and World Report noted that the state’s school choice program increased the likelihood that students would go to college by about 15 percent.
Another option is to amend the Kansas Constitution to end the cycle of litigation. The current wording of the Kansas Constitution leaves the door open for people to bring additional lawsuits after every funding decision, which locks us into a back-and-forth debate about numbers instead of finding innovative solutions. Proposed tightening of this language would solve this problem and put the issue of funding back on the plate of lawmakers.
We’ve all heard the old saying: Insanity is doing the same thing over and over again and expecting different results. Kansas has passed enough school funding bills that don’t work. It’s time to flip the discussion about school funding on its head and put the focus back on the students, not on the power play between branches of government or the virtue signaling of politicians. We all want students to succeed, so let’s finally give them the tools to do so.
Olivia Rogers is a political science student at Kansas State University. She writes for Young Voices, a 501(c)(3) nonprofit that helps cultivate young thought leaders.