Archive for Thursday, December 11, 2003

Funding formula rests with Legislature

December 11, 2003

In the same county that bore the monumental education case Brown v. Board of Education, 49 years later comes a decision with potentially similar ripple effects for schools.

Last week, Shawnee County District Judge Terry Bullock issued a preliminary finding that the state's current model for funding Kansas schools violates rights of individuals under the Kansas and United States constitutions.

The funding formula fails to provide a suitable education and does not adequately provide for poor, minority, disabled and non-English speaking students, the judge ruled in his 104-page order.

The judge ordered the Kansas Legislature to bring the funding system into compliance by July 1. As a preliminary decision, an appeal cannot be heard until after the deadline.

The Legislature will convene Jan. 12.

Schools in Kansas are funded at a base per pupil rate varying from school to school and education funding represents the biggest portion of the state's annual budget.

Like the Brown decision in 1954 -- also an equal education case -- state legislators and school district administrators are unsure of how the decision will shape the future landscape of public education in Kansas.

State Rep. Ray Cox, R-Bonner Springs, whose 39th District covers Basehor and Bonner Springs, has an interesting perspective on the ruling. He is a legislator and a former high school and junior college teacher of 16 years.

Cox said he was pleased to see Judge Bullock's ruling.

"I'm glad he brought this to the forefront," Cox said. "It should be addressed, but, in all reality I don't know that the Senate and the House will do a doggone thing."

Cox, who has voted for increases in education spending for the last several legislative sessions, said he anticipates no action to be taken until after the July 1 deadline. From there, it's anyone's guess how soon the funding problem will be resolved.

"It's a bleak situation and one that's not going to be resolved this year," Cox said.

Sen. John Vratil, R-Leawood, offers the same perspective. Vratil, chairman of the Senate Judiciary Committee, is also the attorney for the Basehor-Linwood School District.

He echoed similar sentiments as Cox in that Judge Bullock's decision should keep the issue of education funding up front and center during the legislative sessions.

"There is something in this decision for everyone to love and everyone to hate," Vratil said.

Vratil said he agreed with the judge's ruling in that kindergarten through 12th grade funding is "grossly under-funded."

The senator also said funding for at-risk and bilingual students should be increased dramatically. He disagreed with a section of the ruling that indicates any funding for public schools belongs to the state whether those funds are raised at the state, locally or otherwise.

This provision would harm the ability of schools to acquire grants or donations from the private and federal sectors, Vratil said.

Both Vratil and Cox said the Shawnee County decision is bound to see the courtroom again.

Jill Hackett, superintendent of the Basehor-Linwood School District, and Robert Van Maren, Bonner Springs-Edwardsville superintendent, said they supported the decision if it prompts the Legislature to loosen the purse strings for education.

The Kansas Association of School Boards released its review of the decision this week, which sided with the judge's ruling. The association is taking the stance that the Legislature should overhaul flaws in the school funding formula.

"We believe the Legislature should address the issues raised by the court, no matter what the status of the legal challenge," the school boards' statement said. "It is not simply a question of what the Legislature must do legally; it is a question of what the Legislature ought to do for the students of Kansas and for the people of Kansas."

School board representatives said the funding formula could be brought into compliance by raising the base per pupil rate, fully funding early childhood, kindergarten programs, and special education services.

They also point to an education study commissioned by the Legislature in 2002. The study found that Kansas students should be funded at $4,650 per student, approximately $787 less than now.

The benefits of fixing the funding formula far outweigh the detractions, KASB said in its review.

"To those who say the cost of fixing the finance system is too high, we would ask: What if it were your child or grandchild being left behind?"

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