Deep state tax cuts can be very, very bad for K-12 schools. That’s a key lesson of last week’s court ruling that found that Kansas is unconstitutionally underfunding its elementary and secondary schools even as it slams through one of the nation’s largest-ever state tax cuts. And it’s a lesson that the surprising number of governors who are considering tax cuts as they unveil their budgets for next year should heed.
The connection between schools and taxes is not complicated. States need a well-educated workforce for economic growth. That means adequate funding in order to recruit and train new teachers and to make other improvements to state school systems. The constitutions of most states, including Kansas, also require adequate school funding.
But states won’t have enough money for schools if they blow holes in their tax codes. Earlier this month, Kansas slashed income tax rates and gave huge new tax breaks to many of the state’s wealthiest individuals and corporations — even though it has made some of the deepest education funding cuts of any state, cutting per-student aid to local school districts by 13 percent, in real terms, since the start of the recession.
Kansas claimed that the funding cuts were the inevitable result of a weak economy, but a panel of district court judges said that argument was “completely illogical” in the face of its huge tax cuts. And to the state’s argument that cutting taxes would help the economy, the court said, “the only certain result from the tax cut will be a further reduction of existing resources available.” Indeed, the state now faces a $267 million gap in its budget for the coming year.
Kansas Governor Sam Brownback is not the only governor who has been pushing big tax cuts. Governors in Indiana, Wisconsin, and New Mexico also are talking tax cuts, often implying that such cuts will pay for themselves through greater economic growth. In fact, research shows that state tax cuts are at best a weak tool for economic advancement. A better idea: follow the requirements of state constitutions, restore education funding, and invest in states’ most promising economic asset — children’s education.