Higher education officials in Kansas sighed with relief. The Kansas Supreme Court did not mandate $400-plus million more in K-12 funding. But that ruling punted the education adequacy decision to lower courts. If that postponed decision comes in 2015, it will coincide with another disaster that could result in far worse higher ed funding than had these disasters occurred separately. The dramatic enrollment downturn due to the Qualified Admissions standards could trigger a major cut in university funding.
Kansas universities have taken small hits in funding three times over the last three decades. Kansas is a balanced budget state. Kansas cannot spend more than it receives in tax revenue. When taxes fell below estimates, state entities including universities had to give back allocated money. These "rescissions" occurred mid-year. But those amounts were minor compared to the shortfall that will occur due to the recent dramatic state tax cuts combined with any future ruling to restore funding to K-12 schools.
K-12 schools consume half of the state tax dollars. Other state agencies have been cut to the bone, leaving support for public universities the most vulnerable state expense. While the KS Supreme Court decision requires the state to address the equity issue, and either allocate $100-plus million to poorer K-12 schools or tinker with the funding formula, the lower court decision on adequate funding continues to threaten Kansas public university funding.
If the decision to increase K-12 funding comes down in fall of 2015, that train wreck will coincide with a second disaster: the dramatic drop in regent school enrollments due to the Qualified Admission.
Kansas legislators will then have the perfect solution. They can shift large amounts of money from shrinking universities to K-12 schools and not raise taxes.
That would result in a university draw-down on the scale of the 1970s nationwide post-baby boom drop off in university enrollment. That was an academic blood-bath. Under financial exigency, tenured professors were fired. Departments were closed. Meanwhile, Kansas community colleges and Washburn will overflow, not being bound by the Qualified Admission standards.
Only the Kansas Board of Regents can address this issue. Unfortunately, many in higher education remain in denial, expecting this problem to go away. After all, more than three years ago the KBOR announced the tougher standards that added an extra math and would move from ACT-of-21 OR QA curriculum, etc. to ACT-of-21 AND QA curriculum, etc. So, when the KBOR issues commands, the Kansas high schools that send students to Kansas colleges must follow -- right?
Wrong. Despite recent school consolidation, some rural Kansas schools still graduate less than ten students. That is a complete high school of less than 40 students. Such small schools cannot hire teachers to teach just math or just science. Their small staff must teach across disciplines. There is no talent nor time to offer the added course.
Even in larger schools that offer the full QA curriculum, there are many students who just do not have the interest to pursue the added math. That is not to say that they are not "college-able." They want to study literature or art or history. But they are not going to take that extra year of high school math. In fall 2015, they will have to attend community colleges first and transfer to a four-year school later. Some Kansas universities will lose more than 40 percent of their freshman class.
Topeka officials believe that they only need to mandate that something be done, and it will be done. They do not recognize that they cannot enforce mandates that are beyond the capacity of schools and students. The extra math was a-course-too-far. Some of our future Einsteins and Rembrandts will have to attend community colleges for a while rather than state universities because the KBOR insisted every college student must be better in math.
There is no wiggle-room to "gradually" or partially implement the QA standards. They were set in regulations. Putting them off a year or two solves nothing. This problem will still remain the third year onward.
The KBOR has less than a year to bring QA requirements back to reality. If they do not, the resulting drop in enrolments in 2015 can provide our Legislature with a rationale for switching funding to K-12.
John Richard Schrock is a professor in the Department of Biological Sciences
at Emporia State University.