Kansas headed toward another school finance debate next year
Topeka Five months after a new law for funding public schools took effect in Kansas, legislators and education officials are talking about drafting another one next year.
The interest is coming from critics of this year's changes in how the state distributes more than $4 billion in aid to its 286 school districts, but also from Republican lawmakers who supported the new law.
The new law took effect in early April. It jettisoned the state's old, per-student formula for distributing aid to the districts, replacing it with stable "block grants," based on what each district received during the previous school year. The law set aside money for school funding through June 2017, and its authors said from the beginning that it was a short-term fix for problems they saw in school funding.
The Kansas Association of School Board had a summit last week for more than 100 legislators, other state officials and educators to discuss school funding issues. The Republican-dominated Legislature is expected to pick up the debate when it reconvenes in January.
"The process has already begun," said House Appropriations Committee Chairman Ron Ryckman Jr., an Olathe Republican who helped write this year's law.
Here is a look at the debate over school funding.
Some superintendents, local school board members and Democratic legislators didn't think the state needed to junk its old school funding formula, in place since 1992. They argued that problems arising from the old, now-repealed formula resulted from not spending enough money on public schools.
Supporters of the old formula noted that it automatically adjusted districts' aid if their circumstances changed — if student numbers grew, or a higher percentage of those students were dropout risks.
"We need a formula that works," said Don Shimkus, president of both the local school board in Oxford, southeast of Wichita and the state school board association. "The formula that we've had in place for the past 20-some years works well if it's funded."
The old formula regularly forced lawmakers to consider unanticipated increases in spending as it made automatic adjustments in each district's aid — creating extra budget headaches in recent years for GOP lawmakers bent on cutting income taxes. Republican Gov. Sam Brownback and many GOP legislators argued that the old formula didn't put enough money into classrooms or foster better student performance.
Brownback and his allies argued that the old formula needed to be junked but acknowledged that writing a new one could take some time — and saw two years of grants as the solution.
"I'm looking for a formula that is focused on the kids and the outcomes," Ryckman said.
State officials and educators also are awaiting rulings on school funding issues from the Kansas Supreme Court in a lawsuit from the Dodge City, Hutchinson, Wichita and Kansas City, Kansas, districts.
A three-judge Shawnee County District Court panel in June struck down key parts of the new school funding law. The panel had ruled previously that state needed to boost its aid to districts by at least $548 million a year to fulfill its duty under the Kansas Constitution to provide a suitable education to every child.
The Supreme Court is having a hearing in November on the first part of the case, dealing with the fairness of how state aid is distributed. It expects to have another hearing next spring on the question of whether the state is spending enough money.
"The funding should reflect what it actually costs to educate a child," said state Sen. Pat Pettey, a Kansas City Democrat.
Timing the work
Legislators have the option of waiting until 2017 to finish work on a new school funding formula if they're determined not to extend the current system of block grants. But Ryckman said his goal is to finish before lawmakers end their 2016 session next spring.
Election-year politics could complicate the debate, with all 40 Senate seats and 125 House seats on the ballot. Democrats hope to pick up seats and see education as a key issue, and both conservative and moderate Republicans will be looking for gains in the GOP primary in August.
Ryckman said even if lawmakers waited a year, school funding is likely to be a dominant issue in campaigns.