TOPEKA, Kan. (CN) – With one foot out the door, a Kansas governor leaves the state in an education funding crisis. No, not that governor. Kathleen Sebelius left the state in 2009 to become President Barack Obama’s Secretary of Health and Human Services. Now Gov. Sam Brownback, awaiting congressional confirmation for a diplomatic job, has given state lawmakers the sign that they’re on their own in Kansas’s long and unsuccessful struggle to fund its public schools adequately.
Kansas has been addressing, or failing to address the problem for 45 years. Twenty-five percent of that state’s students are deficient in math and reading skills, according to national tests.
Kansas ranked 31st in the nation in funding per student in 2015, according to Governing magazine. Its per capita spending of $10,040 was 12 percent below the national number of $11,392.
In his State of the State address Tuesday, Brownback urged lawmakers to increase public school funding by $600 million over the course of five years. But he offered no plan on how to do it, and did not suggest tax increases.
“Six hundred million dollars is a very significant investment,” said Brownback, a two-term Republican. “And Kansans expect to see students in every school in our state thrive and achieve, particularly our students who the court cited as being inadequately served under our current funding.”
The speech drew angry reactions from Republicans, including Kansas Secretary of State Kris Kobach, who is running for governor in a crowded field that includes Lt. Gov. Jeff Colyer.
“The Colyer/Brownback plan is another bill for hardworking, middle-class Kansas taxpayers,” Kobach said in a statement that mentioned Colyer first though it was Brownback who made the proposal.
State Rep. J.R. Claeys, R-Salina, one of the state’s more conservative lawmakers, had stronger words for Brownback’.
“The governor has waved the white flag of surrender from the dome, and tossed every ally he had left under the bus,” Claeys said. “Then put the bus in reverse. Then lit fire to the bus.”
State Rep. Brett Parker, D-Overland Park, a teacher, said he was unimpressed with Brownback’s sudden change of policy that was more in line with Democrats and moderate Republicans.
“As a teacher, Governor Brownback’s speech reminded me of a student who only recently remembered his final project is due,” Parker said in a statement. “After spending more than half of the time introducing people more popular than himself and killing time waiting out the applause, Governor Brownback was pleased to announce that Kansas should increase school funding. I hope he was not disappointed that we did not find his idea original or innovative.”
Brownback, who has been media-shy in his second term in office, offered a written statement about his plan on Wednesday.
“While I recognize the proposed budget has drawn criticism from legislators on both sides of the aisle, complying with the supreme court’s school finance decision is not optional,” Brownback wrote.
“I support the rule of law, and I will not stand to see schools closed because of inaction on our part. Thankfully the economy is stronger than it has been, however, we recognize the additional money to schools will strain our ability to address other core government functions in future budgets.”
Kansas faced enormous budget deficits after Brownback’s first-term tax cuts failed to bring in the jobs he promised.