July 20, 2024

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Education Study a ‘$200K Birdcage Liner’, Lawmaker Says

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Lawmakers are balking at an education study that recommends spending up to an additional $1.77 billion on school funding. Lori Taylor, a Texas A&M economics professor, briefed lawmakers on her study of Kansas school funding Monday.

At least one lawmaker said a Kansas education study’s recommendations will likely be ignored, because the legislature won’t pass the tax increases necessary to fund the recommendations. He called the study an expensive bird cage liner.

She offered lawmakers two different school spending scenarios to reach certain educational benchmarks. One scenario would require spending an additional $1.49 billion. A second scenario would inject $1.77 billion more into public schools. The recommendations cost the legislature $245,000, which is what lawmakers paid for the research.

“It’s $200,000-worth of bird cage liner,” Rep. John Whitmer, a Wichita Republican, said of the study.

Increasing school funding to the levels the study recommends would require massive tax increases or budget cuts to other state services. Kansas Policy Institute estimates that at the high end, lawmakers would need to nearly quadruple property tax rates for schools, increasing the sales tax rate to the highest in the nation, or increasing income tax rates by up to 59 percent.

Whitmer wasn’t the only Republican balking at the study’s recommendations. Sen. Mary Pilcher-Cook, a Shawnee Republican, said education funding study results often depend on the “whims of the individual conducting the study.”

“For instance, many studies assume the premise that hundreds of millions of new spending will produce better outcomes for students, even though there is no proof that is the case,” she said. “These types of studies are often used by courts and the education lobby to argue for extremely high increased levels of funding, when instead, the legislature should be exploring other alternatives to reforming education that would not involve dramatic increases in spending.”

Taylor said lawmakers could spend less if they lowered their performance standards. Specifically, she said lowering the graduation rate goal from 95 percent to 90 percent would require less new spending. Currently, Kansas’ graduation rate is 86.1 percent, according to the study.

That was a slightly more palatable solution for Rep. Adam Smith, a Weskan Republican. Last year, Smith voted with a majority of lawmakers to institute retroactively the largest tax increase in state history. Smith says he won’t vote for another tax  hike this year.

“The only way this plan is feasible is if we can make an adjustment for a lower graduation rate,” Smith, who serves on the House K-12 education committee, said.

It requires 63 votes in the House and 21 votes in the Senate to get a piece of legislation to the Governor’s desk, and Whitmer doesn’t believe a majority of lawmakers will vote to raise taxes or to cut enough spending elsewhere to make up the difference to meet the study’s recommendations. Whitmer speculated that any legislation that included a tax increase would be vetoed by the Governor.

“The amount of money you’re asking us to put into schools, it’s 148 percent of 100 percent of the tax growth in Kansas. Just to put that into perspective,” Senate Majority Leader Denning told the study’s authors on Monday.

Lawmakers are laboring under a mandate from the Kansas Supreme Court to craft a new school finance formula. The court gave legislators an April deadline. Legislative leaders commissioned the study hoping it would inform their efforts.

Senate President Susan Wagle said in a statement that the study’s spending recommendations hurt Kansas taxpayers, families and small businesses.

“The bottom line is that Kansans cannot afford what the court is demanding, and we cannot afford what the new study is recommending,” she said.

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