One of my favorite Bill Murray films is “Groundhog Day”, a comedy that tells the tale of Phil Connors, a TV meteorologist, who finds himself reliving the same day over and over again. I was reminded of that movie last week when Governor Brownback announced that Speaker Mike O’Neal would be tasked with passing legislation this session defining the legislature’s responsibility for funding K-12 education.
I applaud the Governor for addressing our budget crisis. It is critical that we fill the $7.7 billion long-term funding gap in KPERS and address the state’s burgeoning Medicaid costs. But when it comes to K-12 education funding, the Governor’s stance is that the state is spending too much. By having the Kansas Legislature redefine its constitutional duty to fund a “suitable” education, he’s attempting to justify more cuts.
We’ve been down this path before. In 2001 the Kansas Legislature commissioned a study to define the costs of a suitable K-12 education. And guess what – results said that the legislature was, in fact, woefully underfunding education. In 2003 the Shawnee County District Court declared Kansas’s school finance formula unconstitutional and the Kansas Supreme Court later confirmed the district court’s findings. Finally, in 2006, the legislature passed an enhanced school finance plan that put another $466 million into public schools over a three year period. This bipartisan supported plan guarantees a quality education to every Kansas child, in every corner of this state.
As a result, we’ve seen improved student achievement across the board. In the last four years alone, reading scores have improved more than 8 percent while math scores have improved more than 10 percent. We were clearly on the right path, but now we’ve changed courses.
Let’s be clear about where this is headed – Governor Brownback and Speaker O’Neal want to drastically cut state funding and have local school districts pick up the difference. And the real losers will be the kids living in poorer areas of Kansas. Schoolchildren in districts with high property valuations will continue to enjoy a top-notch education. But those school kids living in significantly poorer districts will be left behind.
The one saving grace is the Montoy case precedent. My guess is that some individual or party will eventually file suit against Speaker O’Neal’s new school finance formula and the courts will eventually rule in the plaintiffs’ favor. And so, like Phil Connors, the Kansas Legislature will find itself reliving the same event as it redefines, under court order, the school finance formula long after the 2011 legislative session is over.