Public education is one of the greatest assets of our nation. It is an equalizing force — like no other — that allows children of all backgrounds to have as close to an equal chance of success as our state can offer. Our teachers and principals work hard to make sure our students learn the subjects and skills they need to grow and develop and be ready to become productive and prosperous at whatever vocation they choose.
It is right then that the majority — over 52 percent — of our state’s budget is spent on K-12 education. We have a Constitutional duty to ensure a system of public education and to see that it is suitably funded. As your representative I take that duty seriously. Balanced with that duty is the responsibility to be a good steward of the state’s finances. To make sure that we spend only what we have, that we can adequately fund all the core services of government, and that we make sure we can pay for the promises we make. Senate Bill 16, the school funding measure that was originally contained in Senate Bill 142, strains that balance to the breaking point.
In an effort to find a school finance plan that would end the current litigation and be affordable — not just this year, but in future years — I sat down with the Governor nearly four weeks ago. Through several meetings and conversations we worked with her staff, legislative research, budget analysts, school leaders and other legislators to try to find that plan that would satisfy both these objectives. Our meetings were positive and progress seemed steady. Until it didn’t. This week I was notified by the Governor’s staff that no further discussions would be had on this issue. She had her plan and that was it. Take it or leave it.
According to our budget analysts the Governor’s plan will leave the state out of money before SB 16’s commitments to schools are paid. Those fiscal models don’t include the possibility of a recession, which the Governor herself predicted in her State of the State Address back in January. Last week, we saw the Treasury Bond yield curve flash active, which has historically been a predictor of an oncoming recession within the next three years.
It is important to remember that we are here at this point — entangled in a decade-long lawsuit that benefits no one but the lawyers — because past legislatures made promises they couldn’t fund due to the recession of 2008. It does not make sense to repeat those mistakes all over again.
I do support complying with the court’s order in the Gannon VI opinion. I do support fully funding our public schools. And to that end I worked on and supported the Kids First Plan, which was the plan we were working on with the Governor. That plan kept the promises we made to our schools in last year’s bill, totaling nearly $1,000,000,000 in new funding by the end of that plan. That plan also adjusted for inflation as required by the court, adding $99 million to the current plan, and paid $9 million in inflation until the plan was fully funded in fiscal year 2023.
The Kids First Plan escrowed the difference between that $9 million and the $90 million proposed by the Governor for the next three years. Those savings could then be used to pay the much higher costs in the out years of the education plan. By saving before we spend, we recession proof our school finance plan, ensuring we can keep our promises even through an economic downturn and provide stability and certainty of funding for our schools.
Additionally, the Kids First Plan would use the interest on the escrowed funds to support early childhood programs, which science has shown makes a huge difference in closing the achievement gap identified by the court in previous opinions. That component of the plan would add an estimated $17 million over the next three years to early childhood programs. The plan also protected and expanded funding for mental health pilot programs that strengthen the partnership between our community mental health providers and our schools to the tune of $27 million. These pilot programs have shown amazing results at identifying young people in need and preventing teen suicides.
I have been proud to support every school funding measure before the legislature in my time here. I wanted to support this year’s plan as well. However, when the balance between school funding and stewardship tips to the point that we are making unsustainable promises to schools and spending the state’s $900 million in ending cash balances down to less than zero within the span of just two years, we are in dangerous territory. It is very likely the effects of SB 16 will result in a fiscal situation that will require refinancing KPERS (our state employee retirement plan) at a cost of $7.4 billion in debt, a tax increase, or both. Based on all of this and the presence of a clearly more responsible plan I simply cannot support SB 16.
While I could not support the Governor’s plan for the reasons given here, I also understand that doing nothing was not an option. I was determined to help facilitate a process that would produce meaningful dialogue and timely action to meet the court’s deadlines. Though I think a better plan was in reach, doing nothing at all would have been unacceptable.