Government & Politics

Here are some options Kansas lawmakers could weigh after school finance decision

The Kansas Legislature has several options they could go with in an effort to fix school funding.
The Kansas Legislature has several options they could go with in an effort to fix school funding.

Gov. Sam Brownback fundamentally remade Kansas’ tax system in his first term and sought to fundamentally remake its school system in his second.

His 2012 tax plan was already in jeopardy, and now a school finance law he championed has been rejected by the state’s highest court.

Senate Minority Leader Anthony Hensley, a Topeka Democrat and high school teacher, said, “It’s entirely possible that we will have spent seven years under Sam Brownback, and we end up in the place where we started both on taxes and school finance.”

Kansas eliminated its school funding system and enacted temporary block grants in 2015 at Brownback’s urging. The Kansas Supreme Court ruled Thursday that the state had failed to ensure adequate education funding, as required by the state constitution, and ordered the creation of a new system by June 30.

The court cited the fact that roughly one-fourth of the state’s students lacked basic math and reading skills as the basis for the ruling. The court did not specify a dollar figure for fixing this in the opinion, but many lawmakers say it’ll take a funding increase to comply.

One possibility is that the Legislature, which shifted toward the political center in the last election, will look to return to something substantially similar to the old formula. And doing that would likely necessitate a significant tax increase.

Brownback’s spokeswoman, Melika Willoughby, said in an email that the governor “will continue working with legislative leadership to balance the budget and pass a school funding system that puts students first.”

Senate President Susan Wagle, a Wichita Republican, said she does not think the Legislature can make headway on a new formula until it passes a budget fix, something she wants to accomplish before the end of the month. The state faces a roughly $1 billion shortfall through June 2019.

“How do you write a formula if you don’t have money to fund the formula? We can discuss concepts and we are discussing concepts … but we need to address the gorilla in the room,” Wagle said.

Hensley said he thinks the court’s ruling gives momentum to override the governor’s veto on tax increases, something that already happened in the Kansas House but fell three votes short in the Kansas Senate.

Sen. Carolyn McGinn, a Sedgwick Republican who chairs the Senate budget committee, said that everything is open-ended at this point.

“We have some folks that have not been supportive of funding our public schools, but there’s also a new mix of people who ran on funding public schools,” McGinn said. “No clear majority on either side, so it’s going to be interesting to see how this conversation starts playing out next week.”

Option 1: Restore old formula, boost funding

Plaintiffs’ attorneys have interpreted the ruling to mean that the court will accept a return to the state’s old formula, which was enacted in 1992 and repealed in 2015, if it is adequately funded.

John Robb, the attorney for the Kansas City, Kan., school district and the three other plaintiff districts, said Thursday that lawmakers have a thousand options for satisfying that order, but the most obvious one would be to restore the state’s old funding system and boost the base aid per pupil. Robb calculates that this option would require roughly $800 million in additional education funding.

Another estimate from the Kansas Department of Education, which used a slightly different methodology to calculate, was $535 million.

Hensley said that restoring the old formula and funding it at 2009 levels would cost about $370 million. He said this figure should serve as a floor for the discussion. The old formula relied on a system of weightings in which districts received money based on their student demographics, including the number of at-risk or bilingual students.

Brownback will likely oppose any efforts to go this route. He specifically blamed the old formula for the achievement gap, which the court cited in its ruling.

“The old funding formula failed our students, particularly those that struggle most. The new funding system must right this wrong,” Brownback said in a statement.

Hensley disagreed.

“The formula itself wasn’t the problem. The problem was the historic underfunding by the Kansas Legislature,” he said.

Senate Majority Leader Jim Denning, an Overland Park Republican, said that after reading the ruling, he doesn’t think the weightings for at-risk students or English language learners is “good enough for the court anymore.” Lawmakers must ensure that money goes to programs that boost student performance, Denning said.

“They not only want money specifically directed to those underperforming students. They want outcomes. That’s where it’s going to get hard,” he said.

Option 2: Tweak the old formula

Lawmakers could use the old formula as a starting point, but make significant changes.

Patty Logan, a member of the steering committee for the Johnson County parents’ group Stand Up Blue Valley, said her organization hopes that lawmakers “take a complete relook at what was previously called at-risk funding.”

At-risk funding in the old formula was based on whether a student receives free or reduced-price lunch, a marker of poverty rates that is frequently used in education nationwide. Logan, however, said that at-risk funding should be tied to a student’s academic achievement.

“If you have a student who is performing two grade levels behind, that student is clearly at-risk and needs special treatment,” Logan said.

Hensley said that making this change, which has been proposed by Johnson County lawmakers in the past, would steer at-risk funding away from urban districts to suburban districts, which he contended would increase inequity.

“School districts like Wichita, Kansas City and Topeka have a disproportionate number of at-risk students. … All of the studies show that underachievement is tied to poverty,” Hensley said.

Rep. Melissa Rooker, a Fairway Republican, said she supports keeping at-risk funding tied to poverty rates but has crafted a bill that would rely on census data as opposed to free or reduced-price lunch enrollment as the method to do that.

Rooker’s bill, which was introduced before the ruling, would increase funding gradually over a four-year period. The first year would be a roughly $300 million increase for schools, but by the end of four years the state would be spending about $900 million more on schools annually. Rooker said the ruling “closes the door on the notion that rearranging existing resources will satisfy the court.”

Her bill would also provide funding for all-day kindergarten statewide, something that Brownback has previously supported and that the court highlighted as a way to boost student achievement in its ruling.

Option 3: Craft something new, coupled with policy changes

The ruling notes that the Legislature has “considerable discretion” on how it satisfies the order.

House Speaker Ron Ryckman, an Olathe Republican, pointed out that a special K-12 budget committee has already been working on crafting a new formula since the start of the session.

Some of the bills already considered by the committee include ideas like tying classroom funding increases to the Consumer Price Index and shifting the responsibility to determine each district’s state funding to the Board of Education.

Lawmakers also may look to tether changes to the funding system with school choice measures.

Rep. Ron Highland, a Wamego Republican, crafted a bill that would create vouchers and expand a program that allows corporations to receive a tax credit if they donate to private school scholarship funds.

Highland said his bill would reshuffle the money already appropriated for schools to be more targeted for underprivileged students, but that it would not increase funding overall. It would also provide financial incentives for school districts that improved student outcomes.

Highland said the bill received a cool reception at a hearing last month, but that the ruling may reopen the possibility of some of the ideas getting traction.

“The mood in the committee that day was, no, it has no chance at all, but after the ruling, we’ll see,” Highland said.

Brownback has already made his desire for school choice measures known.

He floated the concept of “education savings accounts,” money that parents could use to cover private school tuition or the cost of home schooling, in his 2017 State of the State address, and reasserted the idea hours after the ruling. But he could face an uphill battle for the concept in the new Legislature.

Asked if Brownback’s idea could gain traction in the House, Rooker replied, “No. Just flat no.”

Bryan Lowry: 816-234-4077, @BryanLowry3