The Price of Kansas’ Costly Tax Cuts
No state did more to cut taxes in 2012 than Kansas, and no governor proclaimed as loudly as Kansas’ Sam Brownback that tax cuts would have minimal negative impact on public services. So it’s worth looking at what our recent 50-state report on state K-12 funding trends found about Kansas:
- In fiscal year 2014, the first full year since Kansas’ massive income tax cuts (targeted largely to the wealthy) took effect, Kansas cut general state aid for schools per pupil by 2.6 percent (or $129). That’s the third-biggest drop in the country. Most states (35) raised general aid this year to offset some of the cuts in previous years.
- Kansas’ cut this year came on top of large earlier cuts. Since the recession hit, the state’s general aid for schools per pupil has plummeted by 16.5 percent, also the third-biggest decline in the country. That amounts to a cut of $950 per student.
A state district court has found that Kansas is unconstitutionally underfunding its elementary and secondary schools, stating: “It seems completely illogical that the state can argue that a reduction in education funding was necessitated by the downturn in the economy and the state’s diminishing resources and at the same time cut taxes further. . . .” (The state has appealed the decision.)
Nevertheless, defenders of the tax cuts continue to argue that they won’t harm education. The Kansas Policy Institute (KPI), for example, claims that our K-12 funding figures for Kansas are “deliberately misleading” and argues that schools have other funding sources, some of which rose after the recession hit. But that argument has serious problems.
First, KPI claims that we failed to include federal stimulus funds in our analysis. That’s incorrect: we’ve included stimulus funds in all iterations of our report. In earlier versions, the stimulus funds made a big difference to the report’s findings (though we still found that many states, including Kansas, had cut state aid deeply). Today, it’s irrelevant because they’re gone. The point is that, with emergency federal aid no longer available, Kansas is providing much less state aid than before the recession.
Second, KPI claims that other in-state sources of education funding have risen, helping offset the cuts in state aid. But KPI doesn’t explain that a large part of this increase is a sizeable bump in state payments to the teacher retirement fund after years of underfunding left it in danger of not meeting its obligations. That money will help retired teachers but it won’t help schools offset the big state aid cut.
The one major way that schools can limit the damage from state aid cuts is by raising more money at the local level. And, in fact, local school aid in Kansas has ticked up modestly as state aid has fallen. But these modest increases come nowhere close to offsetting the deep cuts in general state aid. And a shift in funding responsibilities from the state to localities tends to worsen funding inequities among school districts, since poor districts tend to have a much harder time raising local revenue.
Kansas schools have had to make a number of changes to cope with the state funding cuts. For example, the Shawnee Mission School District outside of Kansas City has closed an elementary school and two middle schools, increased class sizes, cut music programs, and put off buying new library books. It’s eliminated hundreds of staff positions — including teachers, coaches, librarians, and counselors. And it’s shifted costs to parents by raising the fee for attending kindergarten, creating a new high school activity fee, and raising bus fees.
As Kansas’ huge, irresponsible tax cuts continue to depress state revenues in the years ahead, they’ll make reversing the school aid cuts — let alone making new investments in early childhood education or other promising areas — nearly impossible.