MCT: School funding among issues for incoming Kansas Legislature
By BRENT D. WISTROM and SUZANNE PEREZ TOBIAS
The Wichita Eagle
TOPEKA (MCT) — Kansas students, parents and teachers once again face an uncertain future when it comes to how the Legislature will fund public schools and influence how schools prepare kids for a rapidly changing real world.
Gov. Sam Brownback and conservative lawmakers, who now claim strong majorities in the Statehouse, have laid the groundwork to address some broad educational goals, such as improving fourth-grade reading levels, restructuring the state's school finance formula and better preparing students for technical schools and college.
But, with the Legislature set to meet next week and results of a school finance lawsuit expected sometime this month, few details have been revealed.
"We always have one eye on Topeka to see what the Legislature is going to do, because that affects everything we do," said Lynn Rogers, president of the Wichita school board.
"I just hope the Legislature and the public grasp how having an educated, solid workforce is a huge plus for economic development."
Last year, lawmakers again declined to give schools as much money as state law calls for, an issue that is at the core of the pending lawsuit. Democrats and public school advocates continually say the state must restore cuts made during the recession.
Brownback promises to protect schools from any budget cuts caused by the income tax cuts he approved last year. But he has signaled he wants to redefine what constitutes classroom spending, and he has sought to highlight that, while per pupil spending declined on his watch, overall education spending has grown.
"We've increased spending in K-12, and we'll continue to," he said in early December.
The state spends more than half its money on schools — $3.8?billion of the $6.1?billion in state general funds.
Wichita, the state's largest school district, gets nearly two-thirds of its money from the state — 61 percent of the district's $628 million budget.
Republicans say those numbers are a reason to investigate how efficiently education money is spent statewide and explore new ways to make school spending more transparent.
Democrats, meanwhile, have focused on how the state has underfunded schools for years, and they predict Brownback will have to cut school resources in order to pay for the income tax breaks he signed into law.
Lawmakers have traditionally focused on base state aid per pupil as a benchmark for the state's commitment to schools. But that may start changing this year.
State law has called for the state to provide $4,492 in per pupil base aid since 2008. The closest the Legislature has gotten to that is $4,400 in 2009. It fell to $3,780 in the 2011 and 2012 budget cycle before lawmakers last year bumped it up to $3,838.
Districts get varying amounts of state money depending on enrollment, how many kids qualify for free or reduced-price lunch and a variety of other factors.
Senate Minority Leader Anthony Hensley, D-Topeka, said Democrats will push a bill to restore recession-era cuts that reduced per-pupil funding by $620.
His prefiled bill would increase per pupil aid to the $4,492 figure required by state law over three years. He plans to advocate adjustments to the income tax cutting bill as a way to finance the increase. And he hopes to attract support by including a move that would increase the amount school districts can raise locally by increasing property taxes.
Currently, local property taxes can amount to no more than 31 percent of a district's budget. Hensley's bill would move that to 33 percent in the 2013-2014 school year before hiking it to 35 percent in the next school year.
The move promises to please wealthy districts, such as Blue Valley in the Kansas City area, while causing poor districts to worry they're falling behind because any increase in the mill levy in their districts produces only modest increases. Brownback's attempt last year to eliminate the cap on what local districts can raise failed.
Hensley said he will resist any moves to reconstruct the state's school funding formula.
"If it ain't broke, don't fix it," he said. "We don't have a broken formula. We have a seriously under-funded formula."
The governor and his conservative allies want to change how people view school funding by including related costs, such as pensions and building expenses that aren't calculated into per-pupil aid. That could evolve into a move to adjust how district poverty rates play into the funding formula.
Those moves could come as part of a larger debate about how much money is spent directly in classrooms compared to administrative overhead. Brownback contends the state isn't spending 65 percent of its money directly in classrooms, as state guidelines call for.
Senate President Susan Wagle, R-Wichita, said she hopes Brownback's new two-year budgeting process will provide schools more certainty on funding issues.
Wagle said she doesn't anticipate one big reform package, like the one Brownback pushed unsuccessfully last year. Rather, reform could come through a series of bills.
For example, Wagle said she would like school districts to adopt uniform accounting practices to make it easier to analyze how they spend state money, a move that underlines conservatives' skepticism that school money is spent efficiently.
"They've added personnel, they've increased salaries," she said. "And you compare that to what we've done here at the state level in state government. We've done a lot more to downsize and provide a better service for less money than what we've seen happen in the school system.
"I think we're going to be asking a lot of questions."
Last summer, Brownback and groups such as the Kansas Chamber of Commerce successfully ousted eight Republican senators they viewed as roadblocks to conservative policies. New conservative leaders installed new education committee members who are expected to advance ideas that were unable to gain enough support in the past.
Senate Education Committee Chair Sen. Steve Abrams, R-Arkansas City, said he wants a new education finance formula that helps expand career and technical education programs. He also said he wants to create a new, shared vision that better defines what it means to be an educated high school graduate.
Abrams supports the creation of a refundable tax credit that helps parents pay for private school tuition, which Democrats say would further drain resources for public schools. He said parents are the most important factor in a student's education and that if they decide it's best for their child to attend a private school, the state should accommodate that as part of its constitutional duty to provide a suitable education.
St. Francis Republican Rep. Ward Cassidy, who will lead the House Education Budget Committee and be vice chair of the House Education Committee, said he plans to have school officials spend several hours early in the session educating new lawmakers on how the state's school finance formula works.
"I keep hearing it needs changed," he said. "But I haven't heard a better way to do it yet."
He said he expects many wide-ranging debates on school issues this year, but the conversations could be overshadowed by budget issues spurred by income tax cuts and the pending school finance lawsuit.
"Win or lose, it will be contested again," he said of the lawsuit. "I doubt if we'll get a resolution anytime soon. But anything can happen."