Monday, October 15, 2012

Analysis: Education funding debate hits key issues

By SCOTT ROTHSCHILD, The Lawrence Journal-World

Kansas Democrats hope to avoid another election-year wipeout by making funding for public schools a major issue in legislative races, and their move highlights key differences between them and Republican Gov. Sam Brownback.

Democrats are criticizing Brownback and his conservative allies over massive income tax cuts enacted this year, suggesting they’ll create big budget problems. They contend the tax cuts will force the state to dramatically reduce aid to public schools and that Brownback has shown he’s willing to slash education funding.

Brownback and House Appropriations Committee Marc Rhoades sought to undercut the criticism in separate news conferences by pointing to cuts in education funding under Brownback’s Democratic predecessor, Mark Parkinson.

The back-and-forth showed that Democrats see increased spending on public schools as a much higher priority than tax cuts, while Brownback and his allies place the biggest premium on reducing income taxes to stimulate the economy.

Also, the debate showed that Democrats view money as the biggest concern in education, while Brownback and his allies see other policy issues as important.

“For a lot of years, we’ve been high-centered on finances,” said Rhoades, a conservative Newton Republican. “I’d like to add to the conversation.”

Democrats hope a debate over education funding inoculates them against almost-certain mailings and advertising by conservative groups tying them to President Barack Obama and the federal health care law he championed.

The same tactic resulted in big GOP gains in 2010 and fueled a purge of moderate Senate incumbents in this year’s Republican primaries.

Brownback’s news conference last week was an attempt to counter Democrats’ suggestions that he’s anti-education.

In 2011, he pushed legislators to reduce the state’s base aid to schools by 5.9 percent to help close a budget shortfall. But his staff handed out a data sheet and set up a big poster-board chart showing the overall decline was bigger under Parkinson in the wake of the Great Recession and that the state has committed more total dollars to schools since he took office.

The state will spend $3.2 billion under its current budget on aid to public schools — not quite as much as it did during the 2008-2009 school year but more than it has since then. Base aid per student is still nearly 13 percent lower than in 2008-09 because the state had to compensate for a loss of federal stimulus funds and shifted resources into teacher pensions and capital improvements.

The Kansas Democratic Party declared in recent mailings in legislative races that, “nothing is more important than good public schools,” and Democratic leaders see restoring education funding to pre-2009 levels as a compelling need. With the economy recovering, tax cuts should be considered when schools are properly funded, they argue.

“We would have restored the cuts to public schools first before you pass this massive income tax cut,” Senate Minority Leader Anthony Hensley, a Topeka Democrat, said during a news conference following up on Brownback’s event.

Brownback and his allies took another path this year. The state will cut individual income tax rates for 2013 and exempt the owners of 191,000 businesses from income taxes.

The final measure was more aggressive than Brownback proposed, but he signed it, even in the face of projections from legislative researchers that it would lead to collective budget shortfalls approaching $2.5 billion over the next six years.

The governor has acknowledged the likelihood of budget problems over the next two years, but he and other conservatives believe the legislative researchers’ projections are too pessimistic.

Conservatives also dispute the idea that pushing aggressively for tax cuts means they’re ignoring schools’ needs. They argue that the growth resulting from tax cuts will boost state and local revenues.

“I can’t emphasize this enough: Growth is the key to education funding,” Brownback said during his news conference.

Brownback also has attempted to shift the debate from a focus on raw dollars to how effectively those dollars are spent by appointing a school efficiency task force dominated by certified public accountants.

He contends the state needs to do a better job of making sure its aid finances classroom instruction.