KANSAS CITY, Kan. (AP) — Kansas Gov. Sam Brownback has launched a bold program of tax and spending cuts aimed at making the state more attractive for business, but he's facing a challenge that threatens his ambitions and that could have implications for other states.
Four school districts and the parents of more than 30 children are suing the state, claiming Kansas has fallen far short of constitutional guarantees for adequately funding its schools. That has set up a momentous state Supreme Court decision, due any day, on whether funding must be increased.
All states have language in their constitutions providing for public schools. But Kansas' courts have been strong and specific in the past in spelling out how the state must carry out that responsibility.
A ruling that requires more funding could embolden parents and educators in other states to challenge cuts in school spending that have been widespread in recent years.
On the other hand, a ruling for the state will be seen as a favorable signal for conservatives pushing to shrink state government. More than two dozen states have Republican governors and legislatures, and many have pushed to stimulate their economies with tax cuts.
"It is playing out and will continue to play out in other states," said David Sciarra, executive director of the Newark, N.J.-based Education Law Center, which filed a brief in the Kansas case. "What happens in this round of litigation in Kansas will have implications."
After Brownback took office in 2011, he and legislators cut the state's basic aid to schools by nearly 6 percent to help close a budget shortfall and prop up the teachers' pension system. In 2012, Brownback won passage of $3.9 billion personal income tax cut plan designed to stimulate the economy.
School districts complained about the impact of the spending cuts and said the tax money was needed for bolstering schools.
After the reductions, classrooms became more crowded and staffs were trimmed. Districts across the state dropped after-school programs and increased activity fees paid by parents.
"They turned their backs on us," said Brian Smith, superintendent in the southeast Kansas town of Galena, where the district teaching staff dropped from 70 to 58.
Brownback insists the tax cuts are vital to expanding the state's economy, which will generate more revenues for public services, including education. In his State of the State speech Wednesday, Brownback lashed out against any court intervention.
"The constitution empowers the Legislature, the people's representatives, to fund our schools," he said. Some conservatives have hinted the state might defy an adverse ruling, which could lead to more legal wrangling.
After a round of litigation that ended in 2006, Kansas schools were promised — and for several years saw — large increases in spending. But when the national economy slumped before Brownback became governor, the state began backtracking. The state's basic aid to schools per pupil for the 2015 fiscal year is $3,852, down from a peak of $4,433.
Brownback dismisses arguments that his tax cuts come at the expense of public schools as "just political rhetoric on the left." He says schools remain strong; students ACT scores are above national averages, and that graduation rates are rising.
Brownback has proposed a new fourth-grade reading program and full state funding for all-day kindergarten. However, the Kansas Supreme Court is considering a much larger boost of at least $440 million a year.
The state Legislature, where conservative Republicans have a large majority, has initiated audits of school districts in a hunt for potential efficiencies.
"There isn't any entity — business or government or whatever it is — that can't stand to be cut," said Republican state House Speaker Ray Merrick.
But educators say the spending cuts are hurting education and taking a toll on school facilities.
At Frank Rushton Elementary School in Kansas City, Kan., one of the districts in the lawsuit, nurse Lori Stubbs' office is a 6-foot-wide cubicle in a hallway. She's made dozens of small ice packs from folded paper towels to use for any children who get hurt at school. There is no privacy.
"I don't have a door," she said, "and I don't have a sink."
In Galena, superintendent Smith now doubles as a student counselor.
"We had cut teachers. We had cut maintenance staff. We had cut food-service personnel," he said. "I felt like I had to do something, too."
Kansas Legislature: http://www.kslegislature.org
Kansas governor: http://www.kansas.gov/
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