Amid Funding Backlash, Conservative Kansas Legislators Lose in Primary

By Daarel Burnette II — August 04, 2016 2 min read
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Several Kansas tea-party politicians lost their Republican primary races this week over a statewide funding crisis that has, among other fallouts, thrust the way the legislature distributes an ever-shrinking pool of money to its public schools into the political spotlight, according to the Associated Press.

The losers include Senate Majority Leader Terry Bruce and several legislators in Johnson County, a suburb Kansas City, that has been disproportionately affected by a legal dispute over how equitable and adequate the state’s school funding formula is.

The vote, which took place on Tuesday, was, in part, a public referendum on how far a state’s politicians can go in dismantling its public school system in order to slash away at taxes. Between 2012 and 2013, Gov. Sam Brownback pushed through a series of income tax cuts on the bet that its economy would blossom and Kansans would thank him. But the economy, largely dependent on the agriculture industry, lagged and his approval ratings tanked.

What’s more, the state, for several months in a row now, has missed its revenue projections, forcing it to continually cut millions of dollars out of its state agencies’ budgets. Hardest hit has been the state’s public schools, which have been forced to instead rely on local property tax revenue. Several districts with a disproportionate number of poor students sued and won, culminating in a decision earlier this spring by the state’s supreme court demanding that the legislature find a way to provide its poorest districts with $38 million or have the schools close.

With the majority of lawmakers up for re-election, the legislature did so, to the chagrin of wealthy and politically powerful Johnson County parents whose school board was forced to cut millions of dollars from its budget based on the new formula. The state’s supreme court is soon expected to decide in the Gannon V. State case whether the state provides an “adequate” amount of money to its schools, a decision that could cost the state more than $400 million, according to the plaintiff’s lawyers.

Many parents and teachers in the state have been irritated with the topsy-turvy budget cuts, and legislators earlier this summer admonished public administrators from campaigning to unseat local politicians during school hours, threatening them with a $5,000 fine.

Also unseated Tuesday were Republican state Sens. Tom Arpke, Forrest Knox, Jeff Melcher, Larry Powell, and Greg Smith. In the House, Rob Bruchman, Brett Hildabrand, Jerry Lunn, Charles Macheers and Craig McPherson lost their races.

Republican Ron Highland—the chair of the state’s education committee, who has questioned whether to take federal dollars and the strings that come with it, challenged the effectiveness of the state’s efforts to close the achievement gaps, and proposed to shift the majority of its public education spending into vouchers—won his race.

Several politicians in the state have begun referring to its public schools as “government schools.”

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A version of this news article first appeared in the State EdWatch blog.