Gov. Sam Brownback correctly called this week for Kansans’ help to develop a new funding formula for their cherished public school system.
Reforms are badly needed because the two-year formula he and the Legislature rashly put in place in 2015 has too many problems to live another day.
Brownback’s invitation was part of a host of recent developments that show the future of public education in Kansas has taken its rightful place as a top priority for improvement by elected officials, educators and voters.
The primary goals must be to adequately and fairly finance K-12 schools at the state level, while requiring locally elected school boards to make sure students get the highest quality education possible in their communities.
How’s all this going to come about? Ideas already are piling up on the table.
The governor on Wednesday asked for ideas to help develop a new school funding system. In a column distributed later (see Oped page), Brownback included a call to “work together to build solutions that increase student achievement....”
Brownback’s request is a welcome change from much of his prior involvement in some K-12 issues.
The most destructive action was the income tax cut bill he signed in 2012, which has cut state revenues about $650 million a year. School leaders from Johnson County to western Kansas — and even many of Brownback’s fellow Republican lawmakers — have duly noted that this single action has made it impossible for the Legislature to fully fund schools since then.
After the governor’s message went out Wednesday, Kansans were posting predictable replies that repealing all or part of the tax cuts would be the single best way to better finance eduction.
In other moves that got him crosswise with the educational community, the governor in the 2015 session signed a bill that was rushed through the Legislature. It eliminated a longtime financing formula and replaced it with a block-grant program devised without sufficient input from educators. The Kansas Supreme Court in early 2016 struck down portions of the block grant law.
In 2014, Brownback butted heads with teacher groups when he signed a bill that ended mandatory due process hearings before a teacher with three or more years of experience could be fired. It also allowed districts to hire people without teacher training in some fields. Running for re-election later that year, Brownback said he regretted his adversarial relationship with teachers.
And then there was the much-reported purchase of a $50,000 grand piano for use at Sumner Academy of Arts and Sciences in Kansas City, Kan. Brownback said schools should put more money into teaching instead.
Schools do spend large portions of their funds in the classrooms, but they also need to replace outdated equipment, such as pianos, while also investing in people (such as principals) and after-school programs that benefit children.
Brownback returned to that theme this week, saying, “We must give teachers the flexibility to teach, spending less time on administrative tasks and more time directly pouring into the education of students.”
Those are excellent points. But to do that, local schools need adequate funds to invest in education.
Questionable tax idea
Also Wednesday, the United School Administrators of Kansas unveiled what would amount to a seismic shift in how public schools are funded.
The group said a statewide property tax could be put in place and state officials would distribute the money to districts based on need.
However, putting that much power in the hands of people in Topeka seems the wrong way to go. This proposal needs further vetting.
Voters flex their power
Kansas voters on Aug. 2 sent a clear message that they are dissatisfied with how Brownback’s conservative Republican allies in the Legislature have handled the public schools issue.
Especially in Johnson County, more moderate GOP candidates won primary elections by touting their pro-school positions.
Notably, these positions were not to keep the block grant system. In addition, many successful Republican candidates — along with Democrats who will oppose them in the Nov. 8 general elections — are saying they want to make major changes in school funding in Topeka.
However, no reform plan has yet attracted significant support, pointing to the complexity of the situation.
Finally, all of this attention on funding and how to bolster education initiatives in Kansas takes on a greater urgency in light of a recent detailed report from the Kansas Association of School Boards.
The positive news is that Kansas ranked as the 10th-best state in 2014 in the country in overall student outcomes based on 15 performance measures.
The negative part of the review is that this rank is in danger, partly because of static teacher salaries and low funding per student. Kansas was 29th in spending per pupil. That matters a great deal when it comes to attracting high-quality educators as well as in making it possible to have top-flight facilities and modern technology to benefit Kansas students.
Yet it’s also true, as Brownback and public school critics have noted, that schools have to properly use the $4 billion sent to them each year by the state.
Kansas’ educational institutions must always be looking for ways to stretch their dollars with the goal of serving students, not bureaucracies.
All of the efforts underway right now — including Brownback’s new invitation for information and voters going to the polls this fall — could have positive outcomes.
The state could approve a better school funding plan. And educators could find ways to help prepare students to be successful in all facets of their lives in a fast-changing world.