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Almost every American would agree that education is a fundamental right. Any serious commitment to the notion of “equal opportunity” means ensuring that kids have an opportunity for a quality education—and that this opportunity should be as available to the very poor as it always has been to the very rich. As it happens, every state’s constitution includes a provision guaranteeing a basic education to its residents. But as an excellent op-ed in today’s New York Times notes, if some Kansas policymakers have their way, that state’s constitutional guarantees may be the latest victim of Governor Sam Brownback’s income tax cuts.
It’s worth reviewing how Kansas lawmakers found themselves talking about jettisoning fundamental constitutional rights. In 2012, Governor Brownback pushed through huge tax cuts for the affluent based, in part, on the argument that these tax cuts would be largely self-financing. (Brownback was apparently influenced heavily by the half-baked supply-side claims of Arthur Laffer that cutting income taxes will automatically spur economic growth.) Rather than requiring harmful cuts in state and local public investments, Brownback argued, his tax cuts would be “a shot of adrenaline into the heart of the Kansas economy,” generating new economic activity that would actually boost tax collections. But as the Center on Budget and Policy Priorities notes, it hasn’t worked out that way. State lawmakers were forced to enact substantial spending cuts across the board, and per-pupil funding plummeted from nearly $4,500 less than a decade ago to $3,838 last year. After a group of Kansas parents brought suit against the state, a lower state court ruled (PDF) that these cuts were an unconstitutional violation of the state’s basic education guarantees—and prescribed a remedy that returns per-pupil funding to the levels achieved in the last decade.
In response to the court’s finding (which is now being reviewed by the state Supreme Court), policymakers in the Brownback administration have argued that the court’s mandate for more school spending prevents them from adjusting spending levels to reflect economic downturns. As the state’s solicitor general argued last year, “The Legislature has to deal with the real world…the constitution shouldn’t be a suicide pact.” But this argument is ludicrous: as the court sensibly pointed out in its ruling, state lawmakers gutted education spending at the same time that they were pushing through huge tax cuts, making it “completely illogical” to argue that the unconstitutional education cuts are anything other than “self-inflicted.” Notwithstanding this, some policymakers have called for amending the state constitution to modify or even eliminate the guarantee of a basic education in response to this ruling. In other words, when the state constitution conflicts with supply-side tax cuts, it must be the constitution’s fault.
The good news is that most other states have, so far, resisted the siren call of Laffer’s calls for huge income tax cuts. But in Kansas, some policymakers are so enamored with the Brownback tax cuts that they appear to be willing to write off their most basic constitutional guarantees.