LEAVENWORTH TIMES: Put the future of our youth first

By John Young
September 22, 2016

Most Kansans would agree that the 2016 state elections revolve around an economic situation precipitated by income tax cuts. We each look at our own economic situation from a fairly narrow perspective.

I suspect if we would ask an outsider like James Carville to look at Kansas and tell us who has the most to gain or lose and should be at the center of our considerations as we go to the polls, he would say, “It’s the youth, stupid!”
By any measure, the most important and precious resource of any nation, state, community and family is by far its youth. If we invest the proper nurturing, mentoring, training and education in our youth, this essential resource will yield far greater economic, social and cultural returns then we can gain from any other resource we have.

For our own survival and success as a society, we have an imperative, collective responsibility at every level of government to adequately fund the very best training and education available from pre-kindergarten through post-secondary. If America is to remain a leading nation, and Kansas is to remain a competitive state, we have no other rational choice.

Gov. Sam Brownback and his ultra-conservative supporters are correct that we need to work to eliminate waste and find reasonable efficiencies in all government endeavors, including public education. While there is no doubt that some school districts and universities could find some more ways to be efficient, reduce waste and eliminate some redundant or unnecessary administrative positions, those savings will hardly have a measurable effect on the deficit between what we currently spend and what we should be spending on educating and training our youth.

Early childhood education via nursery school, pre-school or Head Start programs is essential to ensure that all children are socially and educationally prepared when they enter kindergarten. It is important that children begin their formal education on a reasonably equitable footing with their peers.

Early childhood education has been shown to have a very direct and beneficial impact on students’ performance and behavior that carries over throughout the course of their education and their lives. The most recent Kids Count report covering 2012 through 2014 disclosed that 56 percent of Kansas pre-school age children were not in any kind of early childhood education program.

Established in 1999, the Kansas Endowment for Youth Fund is a conduit for funds paid to Kansas from the tobacco lawsuit to Kansas children’s programs. A portion of the funds each year was to be held back in an account so that funding of children’s programs could continue beyond the final payment in 2025. The amount budgeted for children’s programs each year is insufficient to begin with. To make matters worse, the Brownback administration and other governors have diverted the carryover funds to unrelated purposes. Kansas action for children reports that while the endowment should have a balance of $216 million today, the balance is only $1.165 million. Not only are we not adequately funding early childhood programs, there will be essentially no balance to help pay for those services after 2025.

K-12 education in Kansas is underfunded. It is underfunded according to requirements set forth in the Kansas Constitution. It is underfunded if you measure it by the drop in the number of high school graduates who are prepared for technical training or college.
The Brownback administration claims to have increased funding overall for public education. The fact is that the only increase was increased funding for the Kansas Public Employees Retirement System (KPERS). That increase was required to keep KPERS solvent, and none of the increase went to classrooms or children’s programs.

Brownback and his followers want us to believe that the Kansas Supreme Court is overstepping its bounds. On the contrary, the Legislature under Brownback’s guidance dug in its heels on enacting a funding formula that met the fair and equitable requirements in the Kansas Constitution. The Kansas Supreme Court held them in check and kept them from doing something unconstitutional. Furthermore, it is likely that the Kansas Supreme Court will find that the Brownback administration has not met the Kansas Constitution’ s funding sufficiency requirement. The court is simply performing its constitutional duty while the Brownback administration and ultra-conservatives in the Legislature are trying to avoid performing theirs when it comes to K-12 finance.

The Lansing school district, for example, finds itself in the same circumstances as many other school districts across the state. To keep up with expenses, they have spent down their reserves from more than $7 million four years ago to $700,000 this year. They will lose $900,000 of revenue from new classroom funds next year. Some non-teaching positions have not been filled this year, and the district is making preparations now for further cuts next year. The goal will be to make cuts without affecting the quality of education. Unless we see a significant change in direction by the Legislature next year, that goal may not be realistic.

Our state university system brings millions of grant dollars to the state each year. The quality and reach of the research performed at these universities also attracts many individuals and businesses to the state. The quality of that higher education and the associated research is the central factor in attracting businesses, individuals and grant dollars to our state.

According to KU Chancellor Bernadette Gray-Little (Lawrence Journal World, Sept. 11, 2016) stagnation of state funding for the university system over the past 10 years has had serious consequences, and the $97 million in allotment cuts this May was a serious blow. Continuing shortfalls in state tax revenue will require further cuts, and that will be devastating to some higher-ed programs. Our state universities are already losing some of our best educators to institutions in other states that can offer more competitive compensation packages. Students are facing higher tuition costs.

Brownback and his ultra-conservative allies are responsible for a brain drain from our university system. Grant funding for research is following the same trend, meaning fewer federal and other out-of-state dollars being spent in Kansas. Businesses looking to locate near top-notch research institutions are looking somewhere outside our borders. Quality of higher education for our youth will continue to diminish under the misguided and failing tax structure that is driving these cuts unless we elect senators and representatives who will work together to reverse the devastating tax cuts that set us on this downward spiral.

Put the future of our youth first when you cast your vote in November. As goes the future of our youth, so goes the future of our state and our nation.

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