Tailor budget to meet costs of good education

Schools aren’t bearing their share of the budget burden, according to Republican leaders in the Kansas House. So they passed a budget bill calling for a $26 million reduction in state aid to schools.
Senate Republicans disagreed. They accepted Gov. Kathleen Sebelius’s advice and kept school funding for fiscal 2010 by using federal stimulus money to keep the budget balanced.
But wait a minute. The House budget calls for $13.4 billion in spending; the Senate would spend $13.3 billion, more than $100 million less than the “conservative” House measure: Somebody else got that $26 million the House “saved” by cutting school aid.
Conclusion: The squabble is more over rhetoric than substance. The state spends $3.77 billion on the public schools. A reduction of $26 million amounts to seven-tenths of 1 percent. Even the most ardent supporter of public education — a description the Register always has claimed for itself — cannot argue with a straight face that so insignificant a reduction would be painful.
But the rhetoric is important, nonetheless, because it reveals a still-strong resentment of the massive increase in state aid to schools mandated by the Supreme Court. While the argument is rarely made out loud, there are legislators who want to reduce aid to schools much further so that taxes on business and on large estates can be further reduced.
For public consumption, they talk about education bearing a “fair share” of the recession-induced drop in tax revenues. The idea of sharing fairly makes sense when parceling out lollipops among a gaggle of kids. But one-for-me and one-for-you is no way to write a state budget.
Public education gets 52 percent of the state’s budget because providing Kansas youth a good education is the state’s highest priority. The amount spent on schools should be determined by the cost of achieving that goal. All objective studies of how well the public schools of Kansas are educating Kansas kids show substantial room for improvement. To bring achievement levels up to world standards, more should be spent rather than less.
The conversation should be about educating the young to prepare them to excel in a world of work that puts a premium on knowledge, technical skills and the ability to reason. Those are the goals. The state and the nation should invest enough in its schools to reach them.
Talk about “fair shares” of budgets is totally beside the point.

— Emerson Lynn, jr.