Archive for Thursday, February 19, 2004

Opinions vary on school finance

February 19, 2004

Simply put, actions speak louder than words.

Essentially, that sums up the words of caution Kansas senator John Vratil asked residents keep in mind Tuesday night as they listened to area legislators discuss education finance issues during a forum at Basehor-Linwood High School.

"Most legislators will tell you they support education but sometimes their actions belie their words," said Vratil, R-Leawood, District 11. "Be careful of surface appearances. If you ask a legislator do they support education and do they support a tax increase for education, and if the answer isn't yes to both, you know they don't really support education."

The majority of legislators participating in Tuesday night's forum represented areas in Leavenworth County. However, Sen. Mark Gilstrap, D-Kansas City, Kan., disrict 5, and Ray Cox, R-Bonner Springs, district 39, attended the forum; both Gilstrap and Cox represent areas in Leavenworth and Wyandotte counties.

Education funding, which constitutes more than half the state budget, was at the center of Tuesday night's forum. With the Kansas Legislature in session, area politicos offered varying opinions on the direction school funding could take this year.

At the center of the educational agenda this year is the debate over Gov. Kathleen Sebelius's "education first plan," a series of tax increases the governor has proposed to raise an additional $304 million for kindergarten through 12th grade education.

Mark Tallman, a lobbyist for the Kansas Association of School Boards and forum moderator Tuesday night, said he's seen three perspectives concerning the governor's education plan.

Tallman said those lines of thinking most common among legislators are:

  • Investing more money into education through tax increases.
  • Leaving school funding alone, which equals no tax increase, because of a limping national and state economy.
  • Allowing school districts to raise funds locally to fund schools in lieu of a tax increase.

Some legislators didn't tip their hand Tuesday night as to how they might vote on education in coming weeks.

Sen. Bob Lyon, R-Winchester, whose District 3 boundaries were redrawn to include Basehor, said he's "committed to providing outstanding educational opportunities at the lowest cost to tax payers."

He added that enhancing three key areas of education -- rewarding excellent teachers, implementing a curriculum that shares the values of parents and increasing parental involvement -- are at the forefront of his ideal educational reform.

Other legislators, however, were blunt and voiced pro-education sentiments.

Cox, a former teacher, said he's consistently voted for increases in education funding during his six terms as district 39 representative. Quality schools breed prospering communities and economic development, he said.

"Education is economic development," Cox said. "They go hand in hand, and sometimes people forget that."

All legislators participating Tuesday evening agreed that the model for funding schools in Kansas is flawed and in desperate need of repair.

A recent judicial decision could impact the course the education funding debate takes during the legislative session.

In December 2003, Shawnee County District Court Judge Terry Bullock issued a preliminary finding that the state's formula for funding public schools violates rights of individuals under the Kansas and United States constitutions. Schools are funded approximately $1 billion less than they should be, according to the ruling.

The judge ordered the legislature to bring the funding formula into compliance by July 1.

It remains to be seen whether the legislature will comply with the judge's deadline or simply appeal the decision to the Kansas Supreme Court.

Marti Crow, D-Leavenworth, District 41, and a member of the House Education Committee, said fixing the funding formula lies at the feet of the legislature and no one else.

"A lot of people in the legislature will tell you we can't act or we won't act," Crow said, "but the fact is it's nobody else's job but ours."

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