One in three Kansas students performs below grade level. Half of African-American and Hispanic children perform below grade level. As one attorney arguing before the Kansas Supreme Court put it, “Two-thirds of students are flourishing. One third are floundering.”
Justices on the Supreme Court seem to be riveted on this fact, as well they should. Kansas cannot claim to provide an adequate education if a third of the kids are not making the grade.
When a new school finance formula is written in the upcoming legislative session, that disparity must be addressed for the sake of fairness, but also — to be practical — because the high court is likely to demand it.
That immediately raises two of the main issues facing those who will devise the new formula: How to weight school aid and how much to spend. Those factors are what make school funding so complicated.
From where we sit, in Johnson County, it is important to proclaim, for all to hear, that all students in Kansas schools deserve and have the right to a high-quality education. There should be no laggards due to funding. And there should be no mediocrity due to inadequate funding. Kansas kids are the state’s highest priority. Period.
That brings us to the Johnson County question that was virtually ignored in the original 1992 school funding plan — that now must be a vital part of any future school finance formula. What can Johnson County districts do on their own to take education to an even higher level, if that is the desire of local patrons?
The clear answer has to be local authority. There must be an avenue for supplemental local funding if those schools are to be able to excel beyond what the state can and will fund.
There are some legislators — including some in Johnson County — who have reached the erroneous conclusion that the Kansas Constitution provides that all students statewide receive the exact same amount of aid, and that no district can rise above that, unless all districts are then equalized by even more state funding.
This has been the opinion of the Kansas National Education Association, a teachers union. Its leaders led the way in 1992 to penalize Johnson County schools because they did not think it was fair for a district to excel beyond state standards.
The Kansas Supreme Court has never said that is so.
The high court never ruled that the local option budget, a means to provide modest additional funding, was unconstitutional. When Johnson County raised a temporary extra quarter-cent sales tax for schools, that tax was never struck down by the Supreme Court. There is no reason to conclude that the state Constitution forbids districts to raise additional funds, over and above state funding.
This is the one component in the crafting of a new formula that must be included, or else Johnson County schools will be unable to maintain their excellence. Shawnee Mission, in particular, has struggled to uphold its standards, but it has been able to do so, even with aggressive cost-cutting.
On the critical need for local authority, the Johnson County delegation in Topeka must stick together. Conservative and moderate Republicans and Democrats must stay united on this issue.
Johnson County residents deserve to know which of our “pro-education” legislators are fighting for local authority and which, if any, have capitulated to the false notion that local authority is somehow wrong or illegal. We will sound the alarm about local legislators who would sell short Johnson County schools by consorting with the teachers union’s anti-local authority agenda.
Steve Rose, longtime Johnson County columnist: email@example.com