••• Education, Tax & Spending •••

WestEd cost study has media pushing huge tax hikes

Preliminary results of the WestEd cost study on school funding have media and some legislators salivating over the prospect of billions more being poured in Kansas schools, without even passing concern over the devastating tax hikes that would be required.  Media’s read on the WestEd cost study says $1.8 billion to $2.1 billion more is needed – in addition to $6 billion provided last year.

The study recommends a five-year phase-in of any spending increase but the tax increases required to do so are nonetheless breathtaking.  Scenario A calls for $1.8 billion more than provided in FY 2017 but the Legislature already gave schools $293 million over two years and factored that into the budget, so the net increase needed going forward is $1.49 billion.  The net increase for Scenario B is $1.77 billion.

Funding the entire amount with property tax would require raising the mandatory 20 mills to 69 mills in Scenario A, or to 78 mills in Scenario B.  If funded solely with sales tax, the state rate would jump from 6.5 percent to either 10.1 percent or 10.7 percent; in either case, Kansas would have the highest sales tax rate in the nation.  Individual income taxes would have to increase by 49.8 percent under Scenario A or by 59.1 percent under Scenario B.

A five-year phase in would lessen the immediate impact but tax hikes of such magnitude would most certainly cause some people and businesses to leave, which could affect those remaining even more so.

The real cost could be much lower

That said, it’s not clear whether Scenario A or Scenario B in the WestEd cost study is what’s needed to provide adequate funding.  The authors suggested ‘only’ $451 million more is needed to maintain current performance thresholds, and if the $293 million already provided fully counts, the net increase would drop to $158 million.  This is a critical distinction for at least two reasons: (1) the Court says roughly 75 percent of students are already meeting the Rose standards, which should mean additional funding (in its mind) is just needed for the other 25 percent, and (2) the Court says the Legislature’s funding obligation is only to provide funding to meet minimum standards.

The WestEd cost study says Scenario A “is approximately equivalent to the threshold of performance used in the former assessment under the No Child Left Behind (NCLB) law.”  Scenario B reflects the State Board of Education’s desire to have specific percentages of students considered college and career-ready (Level 3 or Level 4 on the state assessment) but the Court recognizes Level 2 as achieving the minimum standard.

Our scientific survey shows Kansans overwhelmingly reject tax increases needed for a $600 million increase, so it’s safe to say voters won’t support double or triple that amount.  And that puts most legislators in a real pickle.  Do they follow the Court’s lead and reject it’s intrusion on the Legislature’s constitutional authority?  Or do they bend to the will of media and the education lobby with economy-crushing tax increases that won’t help students?

Defying media and the education lobby might get them kicked out of office in November.  But the price of getting elected could be throwing students and taxpayers under the bus.

Buckle up.  It’s going to be a stormy Spring.