July 1 marked the beginning of a new fiscal year in Kansas. New years are usually a time to reflect on the year gone by and to embrace a fresh start. Kansas needs a “fresh start” more than ever.
Last month, the Kansas Legislature convened for a special session to address a court ruling that funding for public schools be made more equitable across the state. Had the Legislature failed to comply with the court order, public school doors would not be open today. Thankfully, policymakers managed to avoid a constitutional crisis.
Of course it’s a relief school doors remain open, but the plan passed last month falls far short of being a victory for Kansas kids. The Legislature has — yet again — temporarily plugged a budget hole by cobbling together a set of one-time funds, including monies that originally were promised to the Children’s Initiatives Fund. The latest $4 million CIF sweep comes on top of a 14-percent cut implemented by Gov. Sam Brownback in May, which came on top of yet another $7 million sweep during the 2016 legislative session. Nearly half of the $60 million originally intended for children’s programs in 2016 is instead now paying for the state’s perpetual budget crisis. In total, Brownback has taken well more than $100 million worth of investments in the education and health of Kansas’ youngest children since taking office.
The CIF and the revenue that flows into it is the foundation for Kansas’ entire early childhood infrastructure. It supports our most vulnerable, economically fragile families, and it has been enormously successful. Last January, a statewide audit elevated the CIF as the gold standard for government efficiency and accountability, with some programs generating an $11 return for every $1 invested.
Most of the dialogue around education in recent weeks focused on providing equal educational opportunities to school-aged children. Unfortunately, an equalized school funding formula significantly has diminished impact if our most at-risk children don’t start kindergarten ready to learn. When policymakers repeatedly rob lifelines for babies and toddlers during their most critical years of life, they all but guarantee those children will end up on the schoolhouse doorstep too far behind to get ahead, and before they even get a chance to start.
The Annie E. Casey Foundation recently released its annual report on child well-being. Kansas’ ranking not only dropped for the first time since 2010, we experienced the third largest drop in the country, tumbling from 15th to 19th. Most significantly, Kansas dropped from 12th to 20th in the education domain. These declines directly reflect policy choices of the last five years.
Several policies eroded the well-being of Kansas children since 2011, but none more so than the passage of irresponsible and unsustainable tax policy in 2012. The saga behind the governor’s trademark initiative has been well-documented. Perhaps the most unfortunate consequence of the fiscal mess it created, however, is the false assumption Kansas must now choose between its most important investments.
It makes no sense to sacrifice young Kansas children for school-age Kansas children. But instead of fixing the problem, policymakers have fallen into a pattern of passing hastily crafted, short-term fixes that carry devastating, long-term consequences. It’s a disservice to the children we’re all fighting to protect. If we ever want to accomplish more than crisis management for our kids, we must demand a thoughtful, long-term solution that holds all Kansas children harmless — from diapers to diplomas. As we embark on a new fiscal year, this should be the top “resolution” for all state lawmakers.
Annie McKay is president and CEO of Kansas Action for Children.