School funding stays atop legislative agenda
Topeka Children in this year's kindergarten class in Kansas were the first in many years to start their education out from under the shadow of a school finance lawsuit.
After years of political fighting, the Kansas Supreme Court in June approved the Legislature's $466 million, three-year funding increase for schools. Earlier the court had declared the school funding system unconstitutional because it shortchanged all students, especially those in low-income districts.
But when the court dismissed the lawsuit, which was filed in 1999, Chief Justice Kay McFarland stood beside a table weighed down by legal briefs, arguments and decisions from the case.
She proclaimed that the lawsuit wasn't about winners and losers, but about the children of Kansas.
"They will be better educated and better prepared to meet the challenges of our rapidly changing society. Kansas will be the ultimate beneficiary," McFarland said.
But saying that and getting there are two different things.
The cease-fire in school funding is already over; challenges must be met in retaining teachers, and the state hopes to coordinate numerous innovative ideas produced by a school system that is becoming more diverse each day.
When the Legislature meets in January, funding schools, which expends more than half the state budget, is expected to be a top issue again.
State Sen. Jean Kurtis Schodorf, R-Wichita, and chairwoman of the Senate Education Committee, said there had been rumblings to pare back the three-year plan, which she said she would oppose.
"We need to keep the plan intact," Schodorf said. "This plan, while not perfect, is what the Supreme Court made their decision on, and I don't think we can take it back."
The proposal provided an additional $194.5 million during the current school year, $149 million next year and $122.7 million the year after that.
Alan Rupe, the lead attorney for the plaintiff school districts that challenged the school finance system, said lawmakers would be back in the courthouse if they started whittling away at the funding levels.
"Schools for Fair Funding is committed to maintaining the gains that they've achieved," Rupe said.
"As much as the Legislature indicates that they hate litigation, certainly the quickest way to get re-engaged in it is to start taking away from what they said they would do," he said.
But state Sen. Phillip Journey, R-Haysville, said if the economy didn't improve, lawmakers likely would have to consider reducing the plan, or cut other areas of the budget.
"If the revenue is not there to spend, we can't deficit spend like the federal government," Journey said. "There will be hard choices, such as oxygen bottles or pay raises."
And with the additional funding from the state and increased regulations from the federal government's No Child Left Behind Act comes an increase in demand for excellence.
Teachers are feeling the pressure, as well as colleges that produce teachers.
Phillip Bennett, interim dean of the teachers college at Emporia State University, said many teaching programs had waiting lists because the school was unable to pay enough to attract instructors.
"A large amount of money has gone into public schools, but higher education has been virtually ignored," Bennett said. "We are really struggling on that."
Meanwhile, the demand for teachers has increased. A recent state audit noted that one out of four teachers in Kansas would hit retirement age in the next five years.
Rick Ginsberg, dean of education at the University of Kansas, said there had to be a shift in looking at K-12 education to recruit top-qualified people into education.
He said teachers needed to be paid more and society needed to view education as everyone's job.
"We've gone through reform, reform, reform that has been very well meaning," Ginsberg said. "But if we want to improve our performance, we have to recognize that what happens outside school is as important as inside the school."
At least for now, the three-year funding plan and affirmative court ruling has given schools some stability to plan for the future, Rupe said.
"There is sort of a resolve among them to be able to demonstrate those gains, so that there won't be any questions in the future that additional funding did not improve the chances of the kids of Kansas," he said.
Larry Allen Englebrick, a new deputy state education commissioner hired to head a new division that focuses on innovative approaches at public schools, also has sensed confidence in the schools.
"I think the mood has been upbeat since the ruling by the court this summer," Englebrick said.
"There's going to be an increased emphasis on seeking out the promising and best practices that are occurring across the state and nation," he said.