A Kansas House committee looking at ways to fund schools is scheduled on Tuesday to discuss something called the classroom-based funding act. It’s a 70-page behemoth with many moving parts.
The core idea, though, is simple: Figure out the “actual cost of instruction” in a classroom and then allocate funds based on the number of classrooms in a district.
Alas, the devil is in the details. Classroom cost would be determined by congressional district — an arbitrary restriction that could mean more money for urban districts, where costs can be higher.
And who counts the classrooms? As any teacher can tell you, the concept of a classroom is flexible. Some districts might be tempted to build more classrooms just to get extra money.
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To be clear, the bill itself is not necessarily fatally flawed. But the questions spurred by this legislation illustrate a bigger point: Figuring out a new funding formula for Kansas schools, a process now underway in Topeka, will be enormously complicated and highly political.
Ultimately, lawmakers should aim to ensure fairness and efficiency in districts across the state. How to accomplish that goal will be open to debate.
Some concepts are self-evident. Wealthy districts can raise large sums from higher property values, while poorer districts have no such ability. At the same time, disadvantaged students in those poorer districts can be harder to teach. That can lead to a difficult and, in Kansas, an unconstitutional spiral of declining educational quality.
Kansas legislators have long tried to address those concerns through a complicated formula that sends additional dollars to some disadvantaged districts. That formula has become distorted over time and now is unworkable.
“The state may not allow children to receive disparate levels of educational opportunity on the basis of wealth,” the Kansas Supreme Court said last May, “especially the property wealth of the district where they happen to live.”
We agree with that view. It should be the guidepost for any new formula written by lawmakers this year. Every Kansas student deserves a quality education.
Basing state aid on successful “outcomes” is a non-starter. It’s possible, perhaps likely, that underperforming districts need more money, not less. Underfunded block grants haven’t made anyone happy, either.
But we also recognize that achieving a fair spending balance among all school districts will require sacrifice.
Parents in Johnson County, one of the wealthier counties in the United States, once complained that sending their tax dollars to schools in Coffeyville and Hutchinson smacked of socialism. It was a ridiculous claim then, and it has largely been abandoned.
Instead, most Johnson Countians — and their current legislators — appear to agree on the need to provide resources to other districts, and for other students, in Kansas. In return, they ask for the ability to raise local taxes (known as the local option budget, or LOB) to provide additional opportunities for students.
The LOB is under pressure. Taxpayers are growing weary of ever-creeping property tax bills, and the courts are worried excessive local option budget spending will simply re-establish an unconstitutional disparity between wealthy and poorer districts.
The new formula must address this dilemma. It should include some opportunity for local taxpayers to spend additional funds for specialty classes, while providing additional funds for property-poor districts to offer similar teaching.
Johnson Countians will need to pay part of this cost (including, perhaps, a reinstatement of a higher tax-bracket for high-income residents). In exchange, though, Kansans in wealthy districts have a right to ask that their tax dollars be used wisely in those other districts.
That means the Legislature must address the thorny questions of efficiency and consolidation when it recalibrates the school funding formula.
Gov. Sam Brownback nodded in this direction this year when he proposed a statewide health insurance plan for teachers. Teachers and some school boards are likely to resist such a proposal, but acquiescence might send a signal to taxpayers that educators understand the need to tighten their belts, too.
More importantly, school district consolidation — a concept that’s bitterly opposed in rural counties — must remain an option for policymakers.
Rural interests argue that combining districts doesn’t really save money. This rings false: If Kansas had, say, three superintendents instead of hundreds, the savings would be considerable.
And let’s be frank: Some districts may simply have too many schools. Smaller communities enjoy Friday night football games and the comfort of smaller class sizes, yet when the state’s revenue dwindles, they may have no choice but to close some facilities.
No doubt, some districts would howl. A consolidation measure proposed in 2016 went nowhere, and Brownback has been a consistent opponent. It would be messy and difficult.
But some Kansans are asked to subsidize the eduction of others, a proper and constitutional approach. In return, those Kansans deserve to have that money spent efficiently.
By the numbers
Average residents per school district in selected Kansas counties: