There is a well-known quote often misattributed to Founding Father Thomas Jefferson that states, “The cornerstone of democracy rests on the foundation of an educated electorate,” and although the exact words are not found in any of Jefferson’s writings, he did elucidate a similar sentiment in several writings and letters. In a letter to W. Jarvis in 1820, Jefferson wrote, “I know no safe depositary of the ultimate powers of the society but the people themselves; and if we think them not enlightened enough to exercise their control with a wholesome discretion, the remedy is not to take it from them, but to inform their discretion by education.” Republicans reject Jefferson’s assertion that America has a duty to educate its populace and it is motivated by both their electoral fortunes are solely dependent on ignorant Americans, and their ideology that government funds are better spent on the rich and corporations than educating Americans. It is relatively safe to say Republicans never found education cuts they did not love, because if the electorate is educated they would never comport conservative ideology founded on giving the rich all of the nation’s wealth.
Many states mandate that schools must be funded at constitutionally required levels, but like many Republicans, Kansas GOP leaders disregarded the Kansas Constitution and deliberately underfunded the state’s public schools to both provide tax cuts for the wealthy and keep their population ignorant. Fortunately for Kansas residents and students, the Kansas Supreme Court ruled unanimously on Friday that the state must increase funding for public K-12 schools. The Court’s ruling gutting Brownback’s education plan was a victory for parents, school districts, and students who sued Brownback who has spent the past four years significantly cutting per student funding while cutting taxes for the rich and corporations. One of the lawyers representing the school districts, John Robb, welcomed the Court ruling and said, “The constitution protects education. It does not protect tax cuts.”
Brownback and his group padded education costs by illegally including teacher retirement benefits and pensions as part of the “per student” spending and made them “part of the whole” of state education costs. In the state budget, pension funds and school finance formula are separate line items, but Brownback decided they were one in the same to give credence to his claim that Kansas spends more on education now than it did in 2000. According to Kansas deputy education commissioner for fiscal and administrative services, legislators decided that school districts would be required to show pension funds as part of their budgets regardless the revenues came from the state. Brownback’s defense was that school districts had no standing to bring their claim before the courts, as well as arguing that the Supreme Court had no right or authority to decide whether or not the Kansas legislature deliberately underfunded public education with the retirement benefits and pensions scheme. The Court’s ruling disabused Brownback of the argument he and Republicans were above reproach and immune from a judicial review of an unconstitutional practice.
Brownback and Republicans’ practice was creating an argument that there are plenty of ways to slash spending for schools, especially spending on teachers, while at the same time telling Kansas voters that the teacher pay and benefits should be so attractive the state will bring in “the best and brightest” to educate their children. Brownback’s assertion that Kansas is spending more today than in 2000 was in part because Republicans required school districts to count the state’s pension and retirement responsibility, as well as higher normal operating costs the schools had absolutely no control over. For example, electricity and insurance costs are significantly higher today than in 2000, and diesel fuel to bus students to and from school today is approximately $3.44 per gallon when in 2000 is was only $1.03 that all impacted school districts’ operational expenses. Adding in the state’s responsibility to fund pensions as per child spending “is absurd” according to a lawyer for the plaintiffs who said it was ridiculous to think school districts are responsible for keeping the state pension system solvent. He also said that tax cuts Brownback enacted in 2012 drastically reduced how much money the state had remaining to spend on constitutionally required education spending. He reiterated that “The state pension plan and the schools are both state responsibilities and both are underfunded” because Republicans squandered education money on tax cuts. It is an issue in several Republicans states that shortchange schools under the guise of budget deficits resulting from tax cuts for the rich and corporations.
Kansas Republicans were not happy about the ruling and outraged that the Court gave them until July 1 to implement the funding changes. Republican Rep. Steve Huebert complained that “The courts take as long as they want to make their rulings, and they put deadlines on us? We have our structure of deadlines already built in. They have ultimate flexibility. They can do whatever they want whenever they want, year round. For them to be putting on a July 1 deadline, you know, I think that’s presumptuous.” Apparently, Republicans knew their funding scheme was under judicial review for the past year and that the issue was their rejection of constitutionally required education funding levels.
Perhaps Republican legislators could have spent time funding schools according to the Kansas state Constitution instead of passing legislation ending sex education, blocking the internet from rural communities, attempting to abolish no-fault divorce, or passing the discriminatory “turn the gays away” legislation. Except for restricting rural communities from having internet access, Kansas Republicans found plenty of time to pass extremist Christian laws, but could not find time to adhere to the state Constitution and adequately fund schools.
Sam Brownback may be the first Republican governor to cut school spending by requiring school districts to include the state’s responsibility to fund pensions in their budgets, but he is one of many, many Republican governors cutting education spending to fund tax cuts for the rich and corporations. Other Republican governors are shifting taxpayer money for public education to fund private Christian schools that is another ploy to keep their populations ignorant by teaching the bible as science. As an aside, Founding Father Thomas Jefferson not only asserted it is the government’s responsibility to educate the populace, he said “I have a conviction that science is important to the preservation of our government, and that it is also essential to its protection against foreign power.” In America, the foreign power this government needs protection from is Republicans and their evangelical fanatic voting bloc that revels in ignorance and superstition. One wonders how long Republicans like Sam Brownback will stay in power now that Kansas’ Supreme Court ordered him to, as Thomas Jefferson asserted, provide adequate funding to inform the people’s discretion by education.