Kansas school funding bill is a huge win for Johnson County

04/12/2014 5:00 PM

05/21/2014 2:44 PM

Give credit, where credit is due.

I have not been bashful about criticizing the Kansas governor and Legislature for irresponsible tax cuts.

But last week they made historic strides in bringing more local control to Kansas school districts, particularly to Johnson County and, specifically to the Shawnee Mission School District. They also made great strides for higher education, which has been lost in all the publicity about K-12 funding.

When I endorsed Sam Brownback for his first term as governor, I did so with some misgivings. But the overriding issue to me was his campaign promise that, if elected, he would work to allow local districts more authority to raise local funding.

This is critical because under the insane school finance formula, Shawnee Mission is in the bottom 10 percent of all districts in Kansas in what it can spend under the state aid per-pupil formula.

The district has been starved of funds, leading to layoffs of 450 teachers, closed programs and sharply increasing class sizes.

And all of this comes on top of a dramatically changing district, where 40 percent of students are now eligible for free or assisted lunches.

This relief and other provisions of the bill would bring Shawnee Mission a net $3.3 million a year in local funding — which will easily be approved by voters in its second year, as required by the new law — providing a lifeline to a district that was drowning. Olathe and Blue Valley, while not as squeezed, will also reap millions of extra dollars, which are very much needed. All districts say they could use even more local funding, but they are appreciative for what they will be getting now.

This leap to more local control wouldn’t have happened if lawmakers had simply put in $129 million to satisfy a court order to provide more money for poor districts.

The increase in the local option budget — which no one anticipated going into the debate — came about because the Johnson County delegation pushed hard for it, key leadership backed it, and Brownback supported it. Had he been opposed, he could easily have killed it. Furthermore, Brownback has followed through on his campaign promise because he has worked behind the scenes for an increase in the local option budget since becoming governor.

Critics are mainly focused on another part of the bill. Teachers would lose tenure and “due process,” allowing superintendents to fire teachers at will, without the cumbersome machinations of the appeals process.

Teachers have no more right to employment protection than anyone in Kansas, a right-to-work state, where union influence is very weak. I oppose union rules that make it almost impossible to weed out sub-par performers.

The Kansas National Education Association is the most powerful teachers’ union in Kansas, and no friend to Johnson County teachers.

In 1992, it, behind the scenes, helped craft the finance formula that has crushed Shawnee Mission schools and has stunted Blue Valley, Olathe, and other smaller districts in Johnson County. Union representatives worked side-by-side with then-Democratic Gov. Joan Finney and a Democrat controlled House of Representatives to come up with a plan that sent huge amounts of Johnson County dollars to schools elsewhere, leaving an inadequate amount at home.

When Johnson County superintendents and leaders screamed over the years that they needed more local funding to make up for their loss in state aid, it was the union that helped block those efforts. The union believed if Johnson County schools got more local funding, their delegation in Topeka would not be as supportive of statewide increased funding for all schools.

I am a big fan of public education, and a big supporter of teachers. But the union has been a negative force. This is a time to celebrate. Something was accomplished that no one thought possible. Johnson County schools finally got more local control.

It has been the mantra for three decades, and it finally came to pass. Hats off to those who voted for this bill and for the governor who will sign it.

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