Johnson County lawmakers and superintendents have been discussing a school finance plan that would radically change the way Kansas funds schools.
The plan, crafted by Johnson County school officials and presented to lawmakers, would calculate funding based on the average amount of money the state’s highest-performing districts, such as Shawnee Mission and Blue Valley, spend per student.
Some lawmakers, including the speaker of the Kansas House, have expressed interest in the proposal, but others warn that the ideas will fail to address an order from the Kansas Supreme Court.
Kansas faces a June 30 deadline to enact a new school finance system after the court ruled earlier this month that the state was failing its constitutional obligation to adequately fund schools. The court noted that roughly one-fourth of the state’s students lack basic math and reading skills.
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Shawnee Mission superintendent Jim Hinson, the main architect of the plan, said that the state should define adequacy based on how much it costs the state’s highest achieving districts to educate students.
“Look at what those districts are spending,” Hinson said. “If it’s taking that amount of money for these districts to achieve really well, does that become the adequacy target?”
Hinson said that this calculation would include both state and local aid. The plan would require that school districts have a minimum property tax in order to be eligible for state aid, but it would also empower districts to raise their local property taxes above that minimum threshold.
“When you’re not able to generate the same amount of (local) money, that’s when the state really kicks in, so some districts are going to have far more state money than they are local. Shawnee Mission’s going to have far more local money,” Hinson said.
Any districts that would see a drop in state funding through this change would receive money to hold them harmless, according to Hinson. But that money might not continue indefinitely.
Wichita superintendent John Allison, who discussed the plan’s general concepts with Hinson, said the majority of districts would require “hold harmless” money. That means most districts would see no gain in state funding from the change, according to Allison, who will become Olathe’s superintendent in July. They could increase their overall funding through local taxes, however.
A spokeswoman for the Shawnee Mission school district said that the district would have an accurate analysis of the financial impact of the plan in the near future.
A lawmaker who participated in a meeting with Hinson on the plan, Republican Rep. Melissa Rooker of Fairway, called the ideas “blatantly unconstitutional.” She contended that the plan would give school districts “unlimited local taxing authority,” a change she saw as problematic for multiple reasons, including the potential impact to property taxes in Johnson County.
“I have great reluctance to fall in behind a plan that would say, really, ‘We’re not going to worry about what state level funding levels are,’ ” Rooker said.
Alan Rupe, an attorney for the Kansas City, Kan., school district and three other districts that sued the state for more money, said the greater reliance on local property taxes would fail the Supreme Court’s equity test.
“It is a plan that benefits wealthier school districts. It simply will not pass constitutional muster,” Rupe said.
A document outlining the plan, which was obtained by The Star, suggests that this model would be tougher to challenge in court because it is based on outcomes. “The outcomes approach demonstrates that districts are able to reach the higher performance levels and the state is willing to offer the same amount...to all districts.”
Gov. Sam Brownback, who previously appointed Hinson to a state commission on education, has repeatedly expressed his desire for a school finance system based on outcomes. Hinson said he has not discussed his plan with the governor.
Melika Willoughby, Brownback’s communications director, said the governor “appreciates Superintendent Hinson’s contribution to the discussion and looks forward to signing a modern school finance system into law by the end of the 2017 legislative session that helps every Kansas student succeed.”
House Speaker Ron Ryckman, an Olathe Republican, has discussed general concepts with Hinson. He said that he was open to the idea of using high-performing districts as a benchmark for adequacy, but noted that the demographic differences between districts need to be weighed.
“The top performing schools also would have to represent the makeup of our state and the students,” Ryckman said.
Hinson, who previously served as a superintendent in Missouri, said that using outcomes to determine funding levels is similar to Missouri’s school finance system.
“We’ve tried to combine some of the best ideas of the two,” he said.
Kansas eliminated its school finance formula in 2015 at Brownback’s urging. Hinson was one of the only superintendents in the state to support a change to a block grant system and joked that he still has scars as a result.
After the court ruled the block grants unconstitutional, many school advocates have called on the Legislature to restore the old formula. Hinson said this would be a mistake.
“Instead of just saying, OK, let’s just go back to the old formula, that’s our natural tendency because that’s what we’ve known,” Hinson said. “But we have an opportunity here to think in a creative, innovative way. Some of the ideas might not be good at all, but if we don’t talk about them then I think that’s a significant mistake.”
Hinson’s plan would largely scrap the weighting system the state relied upon under the old school formula.
Under the weighting system, school districts received additional aid based upon their unique needs. Dale Dennis, the director of school finance for the Kansas Department of Education, identified 10 different weightings in a phone call.
Documents show that Hinson’s plan would only maintain weightings for at-risk and bilingual students, but Hinson said that an additional weighting could be added to cover the needs of rural schools.
Sen. Barbara Bollier, a Mission Hills Republican who participated in a meeting with Hinson on the plan, said she has long supported boosting base aid and reducing the number of weightings.
“I have watched for years the infighting over those weightings,” said Bollier, a member of a special Senate committee that will be working on a school finance plan.