Kansas has been the site of a massive live experiment — and we can learn a lot from its results, especially in Trump’s America.
In 2010, Sam Brownback became the governor of Kansas with the goal of creating a conservative utopia out of Kansas.
The state would become the grand example of how to create prosperity and opportunity through ultra conservative principles, and there was one way Governor Brownback was going to get it there: a trickle-down economy.
Through tax cuts, money would trickle down to the middle and lower classes, creating jobs and expanding business. So, in 2012, Brownback cut income taxes, largely benefiting the wealthiest Kansans, and eliminated taxes entirely for the owners of 330,000 businesses and farms.
It would be “a shot of adrenaline into the heart of the Kansas economy,” he wrote in an op-ed.
Only it wasn’t.
It’s been four years since Kansas’ economic experiment began. The state is financially unrecognizable.
By the end of 2015, Kansas had dropped to 39th in the country for worst job growth. The state has been downgraded in its credit rating. And researchers currently project budget shortfalls in the state totaling $1.1 billion through June 2019. The tax cuts that were supposed to jumpstart the economy and create jobs have actually done the opposite.
To help close the widening deficit gap, Brownback has dipped into the funding pool of public services and programs. Over and over again.
And one of the places where you can see the most impact of these funding cuts? In the classroom.
Since 2009, classrooms have gained more than 19,000 students, with 665 fewer teachers. Crowded classrooms mean full-time teachers are no longer able to give as much individual attention to their students, and yet the students keep pouring in.
It’s not any better for part-time educators either.
“Because of tight budgets, we hire most of our para-educators for five and three-quarter hours so we don’t have to pay them health insurance,” says Kim Schneweis, art teacher at Hays Middle School.
“These are adults working with our most vulnerable students, and they make less than $10,000 a year and aren’t provided health insurance,” she adds. “This is inhumane to the employees. They work very hard with students who need so much help. This creates a revolving door. Even though we have caring people who love working with these students, they cannot live on that little of pay.”
Then you have some school districts with no choice but to end their school year early because of lack of funding. At least eight school districts prematurely closed in 2015.
“It’s crazy times,” Mike Sanders, the superintendent of one the affected school districts, told Bloomberg: “The ideology in this tax experiment has gone too far. It’s almost as if they’re hell-bent on proving their point, no matter the damage it causes.”
Teachers are also fed up with it. Some are leaving their jobs for better teaching opportunities in neighboring states or are quitting education altogether. In 2012-13, the average teaching salary was just $47,464, according to the National Center for Education Statistics, making Kansas one of the top 10 worst states for pay.
The number of teachers leaving the state nearly doubled in the last four years, reported the Lawrence Journal-World, and the neighboring state of Missouri has even placed billboards in Kansas to encourage teachers to teach there instead.
This teacher shortage has created many un-ideal situations, like when six school systems were allowed to hire unlicensed teachers to make up for it in 2015. And budget cuts have meant a big decrease to the fun parts of school: elective classes and extracurricular activities.
“The kids don’t disappear when we cut teaching positions,” says Schneweis. “They still need a full schedule of classes, but we don’t have enough electives to put them in.”
And they don’t have enough funding for each student either. 96% of districts agreed that state aid per pupil was insufficient in 2015, and continuing to decline by the year. That sets up students to fall behind later in life.
A study from Northwestern University shows that increasing funding for every student leads to higher wages and a reduction in adult poverty. Slashing per-pupil resources, especially for at-risk students, only helps to keep the cycle of poverty alive.
This trickle-down economic experiment is jeopardizing the future of Kansas.
Neglecting the needs of teachers and students and creating barriers to a proper education is not creating a competitive workforce, let alone a “conservative utopia.” Even the Supreme Court has said so.
Luckily, Kansans are taking notice.
In the 2016 primary, a large number of legislators were voted out in lieu of more moderate ones who oppose the state’s drastic economic approach. That’s a start.
Brownback’s experiment is a cautionary tale at what happens when you use large tax cuts for those already at the top to spark economic growth: It doesn’t work.
And that’s the thing about experiments: You’re supposed to listen to the findings, even if they aren’t the results you wanted. If you ignore the data and prioritize your personal beliefs instead, you have a real shot at hurting the people you were put in charge to help in your state — or if Trump gets his way, the entire country.