Old battle lines drawn anew in Kansas
In state where ‘separate but equal’ died, governor’s bet on supply-side economics imperils school gains
TOPEKA, Kansas — Beryl New, the principal at Highland Park High School, adorns her office with photographs of the civil rights struggle, from the scene of Little Rock riots to Martin Luther King's jailing in Alabama. Even more present is the legacy of Brown v. Board of Education of Topeka, the desegregation case centered at a nearby elementary school that New herself once attended.
As New travels the hallways and greets nearly every student by name, she seems to be in a setting that might hearten those who fought before her for equal education. The school is almost evenly divided into thirds of whites, Hispanics, and African-Americans, and students said they take pride in the ease with which they mix.
But amid the melting pot that is Highland Park, trouble has come once again to Topeka, once again focusing on equality, once again shining a harsh light on the state's governing class.
This time, the fight is not about the color of students' skin but about the quantity of money schools receive from the state, pitting poorer Kansans against the rest and roiling politics far beyond state lines.
At the center of this new fight is Kansas Governor Sam Brownback's program to eliminate the state's income tax. It is a bold move closely watched by Republican presidential candidates because it has put in an uncomfortable spotlight one of the core economic principles of the GOP — that tax cuts are the best way to fuel growth.
As Brownback put it during in a 2012 appearance on MSNBC, "We'll have a real live experiment" in Republican tax policy.
So far, however, Brownback's program has worked out more the way his Democratic critics warned than as his own party expected. It has mostly benefited wealthier residents and cost the state far more revenue than anticipated. The banner headline in the Topeka Capital-Journal on Friday was "State faces $800 million shortfall."
As part of an effort to close the gap, millions of dollars are being cut from the budgets of Kansas school districts such as the one where New is the principal. As critics acidly describe it, Brown v. Board of Education has been replaced by "Brownback v. boards of education."
"I think now it is not a blatant racial issue," New said in an interview in her principal's office at Highland Park High School, an 880-student institution in the inner city. "I think now it is a blatant economic status issue because if your parents can't afford to buy a house in a privileged area, you just have to take whatever public education can offer."
Brownback's initial projection that the first phase of his plan would eliminate income taxes for 191,000 taxpayers was a massive miscalculation. More than 333,000 said they qualified, costing the state hundreds of millions of dollars in expected revenue.
At stake, school advocates say, is the very principle of equality. For years, the state provided extra funds to the poorest school districts — known as "equalization" money — so that they would have something close to economic parity with wealthier ones. But, as part of his effort to deal with the revenue shortfall, Brownback took several steps that upset school officials.
He pushed through a plan that cut expected state contributions to schools. He also jettisoned the "equalization" formula and replaced it with fixed payments that will be mostly frozen at current levels for the next two years. As a result, some schools in poorer districts say they must close early, cancel summer school, and cut an array of programs.
"It is causing the destruction of public education in Kansas," said John Robb, a lawyer who has sued the state on grounds that it has failed to meet constitutional requirements for equity in school funding.
Brownback insisted in an interview that it is too early to judge his program and said that, according to state calculations, education funding has actually gone up, even if the rate of expected increases has ebbed. "It is just not true that the money is going down," Brownback said.
Both sides can lay claim to part of the truth. Brownback correctly notes that more state dollars will go to school districts in the coming year, partly because of pension payments and the equity lawsuit. But school districts correctly note that Brownback's plans have forced them to reduce spending below what they thought the state would be providing.
That, in turn, has prompted bitter talk about a revival of inequality, with all of its echoes of the Brown case.
That all of this is happening in Topeka — the city that became the national symbol of the fight for equal education — has brought the story full circle in a way that Beryl New hardly could have imagined.
It was Laffer who convinced Ronald Reagan that cutting taxes could actually lead to so much economic growth that more revenue would come in the long term. When Reagan ran for president in 1980, his primary opponent, George H.W. Bush, famously called the plan "voodoo economics," but he later applauded it when he became Reagan's running mate.
Laffer's critics brand his theory an economic gimmick, disproved time and again, most recently when the George W. Bush tax cuts led to huge federal deficits. But Laffer is utterly undeterred; indeed, he seems more certain than ever that he's right.
In the years since Reagan seized on the idea, Laffer has pitched the plan to countless politicians, often persuading them to incorporate a version into their campaign proposals and budgets. His popularity among Republicans seems as strong as ever; he said he spent an hour with Jeb Bush on April 10 and has met with nearly every Republican potential candidate recently.
So it was with great hope that Brownback reached out to Laffer as he searched for a policy that would help the Kansas economy — and boost his 2014 reelection chances. Laffer was given a $75,000 contract to help develop a plan, which he laid out in numerous phone calls and three meetings with Brownback.
Nine states have no income tax on wages. Laffer said he told Brownback that eliminating income taxes would encourage new businesses to locate in Kansas and existing ones to expand.
Brownback is known more for his social conservatism and antiabortion views than fiscal acumen. A Kansas native, he served as the state's secretary of agriculture, was elected to the US House and then the US Senate, and he briefly ran for president in the 2008 cycle before being elected governor in 2010.
Brownback has long been seen as one of the leading disciples of libertarian brothers Charles and David Koch, who reportedly are spearheading an $889 million effort to help Republicans. The brothers oversee the Wichita-based Koch Industries, which employs 3,900 people in Kansas.
Employees of Koch Industries gave $127,000 to Brownback's campaign and political committee between 1993 and 2010 for his federal campaigns, making it his most valuable donor base during that time, according to an analysis by the nonpartisan Center for Responsive Politics.
Melissa Cohlmia, a spokeswoman for Koch Industries, said the brothers and their foundations did not lobby Brownback to cut taxes and said Charles Koch, like any Kansan who pays income taxes, would benefit from the program. (David Koch is a New York resident.)
Brownback embraced Laffer's general idea of eliminating income taxes but decided to phase it in, first eliminating income taxes for business owners and those he called job creators. He estimated that 191,000 out of the state's 1.2 million taxpayers would be affected. That meant many better-off Kansans would no longer pay income taxes, while most salaried workers this year would pay at a rate of 4.6 percent, down from 6.45 percent.
On May 22, 2012, Brownback signed the bill and promised it would create "tens of thousands of new jobs and help make Kansas the best place in America to start and grow a small business."
Grover Norquist, who persuaded thousands of politicians to sign an antitax pledge in his role as head of Americans for Tax Reform, hailed the governor for having "fired off the shot that said, 'Go' " in a national effort to lower rates. Brownback was mentioned as a possible 2016 presidential candidate.
But Brownback had made a crucial miscalculation.
His definition of business owner turned out to be so vague that it applied to lawyers, lobbyists, freelancers, and many others. Democrats charged that thousands of Kansans gamed the new system, filing paperwork to reclassify their work in ways that enabled them to avoid taxes.
The result was that 333,000 Kansans, instead of 191,000, owed no income tax. With one-fourth of the state's citizens and many businesses no longer paying income taxes, and many other individuals paying at a reduced rate, the state's revenues plummeted during the first full year of Brownback's plan from $6.4 billion to $5.6 billion. Moody's Investor Service lowered the state's bond rating, partly blaming the revenue shortfall.
There is, so far, no documentation that Kansans freed from paying income tax used the savings to hire new employees. Brownback said that has happened, but his office did not provide examples.
But even some Republicans who voted for Brownback's reelection think the tax cut plan was a mistake and think the promises haven't been fulfilled. Representative Don Hill, an Emporia Republican who opposed the initial tax cut and felt "intimidated" into supporting a follow-up measure, said he has talked to many businessowners who no longer have to pay taxes.
Hill said those individuals have gained as much as $12,000 apiece and many have put that money in "their hip pocket." Asked whether he knew of any that had used the savings to hire new employees, he responded: "Not one."
The effects of the revenue shortfall, and the resulting wave of spending cuts, became clear as Brownback's 2014 reelection race heated up.
Under the Kansas Constitution, the state must spend a "suitable" amount on education, which has resulted in the state spending about half of its general revenue funds on K-12 schools.
Even before Brownback's tax plan was approved, a group of school districts and parents had sued the state on grounds that it failed to live up to the "suitable" requirement. A state court found that Kansas was under-funding school districts by about $1.2 billion and was failing to ensure students in different districts were provided with equal education.
The state's attorney argued that Kansas, facing the sudden revenue shortfall, couldn't afford it, urging the court to rule that such spending "would have disastrous consequences to Kansas."
The court's response was terse. It noted that at the same time the state was arguing that it couldn't afford to spend $1.2 billion on education, "the Legislature passed the income tax cut" that its own expert witness said could reduce revenue by up to $1 billion. Thus, the court said, the state's argument that it couldn't afford to adequately fund education was "completely illogical."
A state court later upheld the key part of the ruling, forcing Brownback in 2014 to come up with $140 million in additional education funding in the midst of last year's reelection campaign, with more money needed in later years.
Battle with fellow Republicans
Many members of Brownback's own party watched all this unfold with disdain. A group of 100 former and current GOP officeholders, calling themselves "Republicans for Kansas Values," endorsed Brownback's Democratic opponent, Paul Davis.
The group complained that Brownback had cut taxes "for a select group of higher income Kansans" while effectively raising taxes on middle- and lower-income residents who lost some tax breaks, such as one for housing assistance.
Brownback publicly put a sunny face on his tax program as he sought to win reelection, but he privately expressed his fears to Laffer.
"He felt very uncertain about it; he felt very queasy about it," Laffer said in an interview. "He didn't like the way the numbers came in. He was worried about an election, as he should be. He had a huge battle with Republicans internally. . . . He was very unhappy, in very testy circumstances. I don't blame him. Reagan was the same way in 1982.
"I did reassure him a lot. I went through all of these things, saying 'This is why a good governor does this; these are good policies.' "
Bucked up by Laffer, Brownback said repeatedly on the campaign trail that his plan was working. His Democratic opponent, Davis, warned during the campaign that the deficit was even larger than Brownback said. Davis led in some summer polls but wound up losing, 50 percent to 46 percent of the vote.
Brownback was helped by the state's increasingly conservative bent, having moved far from the moderation for which the state's Senator Bob Dole was known. Kansas hasn't gone Democratic in a presidential election since 1964.
But Brownback's tax plan clearly divided the electorate. Exit polls showed voters disapproved of President Obama by a ratio of a 67 percent to 32 percent but also said, by a 53 percent to 41 percent, that Brownback's tax cuts had "hurt Kansas." A key difference in the race was Brownback's overwhelming support from religious conservatives.
A week after Brownback narrowly won reelection, his budget office conceded that the revenue picture was even worse than had been portrayed during the campaign. The state needed to come up with $280 million during the current fiscal year and another $436 million in the following year. Brownback expressed surprise at the time, insisting, "I knew what the public knew."
As the revenue projections grew ever more dire, Brownback found a new target: the state's two-decade-old formula for ensuring that Kansans in every school district receive an equal education.
Under this "equalization" program, for example, school districts received extra state money for every student poor enough to qualify for a free lunch. The intention was to enable poorer districts such as the one in Topeka to afford the same quality of education of wealthier, mostly white suburban ones.
Students at Highland Park have heard about the coming changes and are alarmed, particularly because they believe inequities already exist even with the equalization money.
Sophia Snepp, an 18-year-old senior at Highland Park, said she is proud that her school is one of the state's most diverse. She has an unusual perspective, having previously attended a nearby school that had only a handful of minorities. The suburban school, she said, seemed to have better facilities and funding.
"If something was wrong there, they would just say, 'We'll buy a new computer,' " she said.
Brownback in March pushed through a law replacing the equalization formula with
A number of school districts promptly sued the state, arguing before a state court that while "Brownback refers to this as 'a timeout in the school finance wars,' " the schools "see it for what it really is: a conscious decision by the State of Kansas to sacrifice the education of Kansas schoolchildren for the foreseeable future."
Brownback stood his ground. His deputy communications director wrote in an e-mail sent from the governor's office to supporters that replacing the equalization payments will "ensure that our educational system is not held hostage by a formula that punishes school districts for things that are out of their control, including changing demographics and numbers of students."
The reference to "changing demographics" holding schools "hostage" set off a firestorm. The Senate minority leader, Anthony Hensley, who teaches a course in politics at Highland Park High School in addition to serving as a senator, saw a racial undertone to Brownback's proposal. He lodged a written protest with the Senate that said the governor was "eliminating the protections" for minorities.
The Republican-controlled Legislature rejected Hensley's protest and passed the measure in March. But the cost was high. It was another sign that the themes of the Brown case — of race and equality — were again in play.
New grew up a block away from the school and fondly recalls the days when Miss Laura's Café offered treats and The Party Shack sold novelties. It was a neighborhood composed almost entirely of black families, and the school had an all-black student body — a policy imposed on elementary schools throughout Topeka before the Brown decision.
There were, of course, thousands of segregated schools across the United States in the 1950s, operating with the blessing of the Supreme Court, which ruled in the 1896 case of Plessy v. Ferguson that "separate but equal" facilities were legal. The NAACP saw its chance to overturn that line of reasoning in Topeka.
A black student named Linda Brown had been forced to walk far from her neighborhood to attend an all-black school, passing an all-white elementary on the way. As she later recalled it, "My father pondered, 'Why? Why should my child walk four miles when there is a school only four blocks away?' " Her father, Oliver Brown, volunteered to be a plaintiff in a case against the Topeka Board of Education.
The Topeka president of the NAACP, McKinley Burnett, who lived adjacent to the Monroe school, worked on the case, dictating his notes to Beryl New's mother, Gerelene Massey, who lived in the neighborhood at the time. The court decided in the NAACP's favor, and schools were slowly desegregated.
By the time Beryl New entered the third grade at Monroe in the spring of 1961, she had one white and one Hispanic classmate. It was an experience that helped lead her to a career in education, first at Topeka High School, a cathedral-like edifice near the statehouse, and then at Highland Park, with its diverse mix of students.
So it was with a sense of history that New entered the old Monroe school on a recent April day. She passed beneath signs that said "White" and "Colored," which weren't originally in the school but symbolize the segregation that once was common in Topeka. New opened the door to the main exhibit and recalled that this was once her favorite classroom.
The old chalkboard is long gone. Instead, the room is filled with murals of the history of segregation. In one panel, an angry white mob screams at black children trying to enter the school.
As New soaked up the scene, her voice became emotional as she compared it with her philosophy at Highland Park.
"We really try to make it a school where every student is recognized and they feel more like a family, rather than, 'These are black kids and these are the white kids,' " she said.
Then she left the old Monroe school, got in her car, and drove to the nearby office of the school district superintendent, who would deliver the latest bad news.
On this day, as she met with New and other local school officials, she had to explain how the district would be affected by the state's budget woes. She listed $3.5 million in cuts: eliminate summer school for elementary and middle school students, freeze most hiring, cancel $1 million worth of textbook purchases, and gut various programs designed to improve student performance.
Why, Ford wondered, was this necessary? She dismissed the philosophy behind Brownback's tax cuts, doubting that most of the 333,000 people who have had their income tax eliminated will create jobs. "People who are getting the tax benefit are saying, 'What is this about? This isn't stirring me to grow my business. It has hurt my town, my community.' "
Asked what she would ask the governor if she had a single question, she offered this: "How do you sleep at night? Seriously. Seriously. I'm a Kansan, and I can't sleep at night seeing what is happening to my state."
Just outside the chamber, a mural of abolitionist John Brown, clutching a rifle in one hand and a Bible in the other, is a portrait of anger, storms swirling in the distance. In another hallway, an old poster recalls the days when Kansas beckoned newcomers with the slogan, "Room for a million!"
The governor's office overlooks a network of city streets that feature an alarming number of empty storefronts. Politics in Kansas often seems dominated by a basic question: Are major parts of the state withering away?
Kansas' population of 2.9 million accounts for only 0.91 percent of the United States, the lowest percentage since shortly after the state was admitted to the union in 1861. It grew last year at about one-half the national rate. The state that had six US House members in 1963 now has four and may soon only have three because of its slow population growth.
All of this is on Brownback's mind as he enters his chambers and settles into his office couch, clutching a sheaf of charts.
Brownback, 58, cultivates a Reaganesque, happy warrior image, along with a deeply conservative, religious viewpoint. In his 2007 book, "From Power to Purpose: A Remarkable Journey of Faith and Compassion," Brownback wrote that he once was blinded by ambition. "My soul was empty," he wrote, until he decided to dedicate himself to his religious beliefs.
So, in 1996, he decided to run against a moderate candidate that Bob Dole had hoped would succeed him in the Senate, and then stunned the establishment by winning. If there was a moment that symbolized Kansas' turn from moderation to conservatism, this might have been it.
These days as governor, he seems to court controversy with actions such as his February decision to unilaterally rescind an order by a Democratic predecessor that banned employment discrimination against gay, lesbian, and transgender state employees; Brownback said he didn't approve of creating such a "protected class."
All of this has emboldened Brownback over the years when he faces political blowback from moderates, including members of his own party. He has beaten them time and again, at least in Kansas.
So as Brownback defends his cuts, he is the picture of confidence and certitude. He portrays his plan as the best chance to revive the days when Kansas was a beacon for newcomers.
"I would submit that the tax cuts are doing what they are supposed to, spurring growth," Brownback said. One of his charts showed that the state unemployment rate is 4.2 percent, down from 6.8 percent when he took office in January 2011. He said more Kansans are working than at any time in history, with 77,600 private sector jobs gained during his administration from January 2011 to February 2015.
Critics, however, say Kansas is not growing as fast as the US economy and cite a report that the state had lost 2,400 nonfarm jobs in March.
As for criticism of his school funding plan, Brownback noted that spending is increasing slightly. He said freezing most school money for two years will enable the Legislature to come up with a more intelligent formula.
And he dismissed his critics with a taunt. "You may have heard the example of the piano in Kansas City," he said. "The school district was spending $43,000 or something on a new piano but they couldn't increase teacher pay."
This is a reference to the fact that the Kansas City school district, which has one of the state's highest numbers of low-income students, replaced a 50-year-old piano that had been used by thousands of students over the years. That is money, Brownback said, that could have been better used to increase teacher salaries.
Kansas City school officials say the example is absurd, defending the need to replace the piano and saying the governor is just trying to direct attention away from state budget cuts. Cynthia Lane, the Kansas City schools superintendent, said the state's failure to provide suitable funds to poorer districts is drawing notice across the country.
"It is the civil rights issue of our times," Lane said.
Brownback, meanwhile, has moved on to another target: welfare recipients. He signed legislation earlier this month that prohibits recipients from using funds for things such as cruises — even though the state has offered no evidence that this has ever been a problem. The measure was widely seen in Topeka as an attempt to direct attention away from the budget troubles.
The troubles continued anyway.
Last Monday, the state unveiled its biannual revenue projection. Brownback hoped it would show revenues had increased, thus proving his plan had worked. They showed instead that tax revenue was $87 million less than forecast in November.
The deficit in fiscal year 2016 could be $750 million, said Duane Goossen, a former Republican member of the Kansas House who served as budget director to both GOP and Democratic governors and is now a Democrat. Goossen said Brownback took a stable budget and created a crisis that other states should take as a lesson.
"Kansas has gone down a fiscally irresponsible course," Goossen said in an interview. "At the beginning, it sounded really seductive: You can cut taxes and still bring in the same amount of revenue. But now it is very clear that has proven not to be true, and the result is that Kansas faces this huge budget deficit, which threatens services and programs."
Legislators seem shellshocked by the continuing bad news. On Thursday, the state's budget chief told lawmakers they needed to come up with $400 million to close this year's gap. But one of the key potential sources of new money — a Brownback proposal to raise liquor and cigarette taxes — has brought him ridicule from those who once were his most ardent backers, including Grover Norquist.
A headline in the Topeka Capital-Journal underscored how quickly the bravado of two years ago has been turned on its head: "Antitax Norquist blasts Brownback's budget for Kansas."
More troubles are on the horizon. In May, the state Supreme Court will hear yet another challenge to Brownback's school funding plan, with plaintiffs hoping to restore the equalization money. If that happens, the budget hole could widen even more. If it doesn't, school districts fear the days of state-enforced equal education funding might be nearing an end.
"There's always that optimism that things will not only change but stabilize," she said. But she felt "disappointment" that the city is roiled by debates about education equality so long after the Brown case was decided. "I personally know the people it is affecting. That is why it has impact on me. I look at the kids every day whose future this will affect."