Government & Politics

Kansas school finance bill boosts state funding by $75 million

The Kansas City, Kan., district would see state funding rise by more than $4.9 million, under a new school finance plan.
The Kansas City, Kan., district would see state funding rise by more than $4.9 million, under a new school finance plan.

Kansas lawmakers’ latest attempt at a new school finance formula would boost school funding by more than $75 million in the next fiscal year, though school officials and other legislators said Wednesday that the plan left them with many questions.

That number is far short of the roughly $500 million to $800 million some had predicted would be needed for the state to meet a recent order by the Kansas Supreme Court to provide adequate funding for Kansas students.

The proposal, House Bill 2410, would increase funding to roughly $3.16 billion, according to the Kansas Department of Education.

Gov. Sam Brownback, a critic of the old formula, said he has been meeting regularly with lawmakers involved in crafting education policy.

“I’m delighted to see it out there,” Brownback said. “I think we need to get those discussions moving forward.”

But Alan Rupe, an attorney representing the coalition of school districts that sued the state for additional funding, took a darker view.

“It’s really throwing a glass of water on a prairie fire,” Rupe said.

Confusion about the formula and how it would affect low-enrollment school districts led some school officials to vent their frustration during a conference call Wednesday afternoon with the Kansas Department of Education.

“For crying out loud, what kind of a formula is this?” one school district official said.

All six Johnson County school districts and almost every school district in Wyandotte County would receive more money under the plan.

The Turner district in Kansas City, Kan., would see a drop in funding from the current block grant system, with an expected decrease of about $264,000 in general state aid.

Across the state, more than 100 school districts would lose funding next year through enrollment changes and the implementation of the bill.

Rep. Clay Aurand, a Belleville Republican on the K-12 committee, described the bill as getting “the pieces” into the right place.

“I don’t think anybody should get hung up on the dollar amount at this point until we know what’s available,” he said, adding that lawmakers were in “limbo” as they continue to look at raising taxes.

The Kansas Legislature has until June 30 to meet the order from the Kansas Supreme Court to create an adequate school finance system.

That same ruling earlier this month found that the state was not providing an adequate education to all Kansas students.

The House bill, which took shape in the last week during meetings of the House K-12 education committee, is scheduled for hearings Thursday and Friday.

Wichita Public Schools, the state’s largest district, would gain about $8.5 million in state aid under the plan, according to projections by the Department of Education.

The district is receiving about $282 million in general state aid this school year under the block grant system. But under the proposed legislation, that figure would rise to more than $290 million.

The Kansas City, Kan., school district would see general state aid funding rise by more than $4.9 million.

But a district spokesman said he was concerned about the widespread effects of the bill.

“I don’t think this bill gets us to where we need to be yet as a state,” said David Smith, the Kansas City, Kan., district spokesman. “...There’s work still to be done.”

In Johnson County, Blue Valley would get an additional $3.2 million in general state aid, Olathe would get more than $6.3 million and Shawnee Mission would get more than $3.49 million.

“Anything new is going to take some time in order for us to absorb it,” said Todd White, the Blue Valley superintendent.

Rep. Larry Campbell, the Olathe Republican who leads the House K-12 education committee, said the bill is “only a starting point.”

“The old formula was a vehicle that got us from here to there,” Campbell said. “As we started looking at the new formula, we went, ‘OK, this new vehicle’s got to have tires. It’s gotta have wheels, it’s gotta have a steering wheel.’ ... Next thing you know, it’s very much similar.”

Campbell said the new bill shares many pieces from the old formula. Lawmakers threw out the old formula in 2015 and replaced it with a block grant system that essentially froze funding.

“I’m hoping we went from a VW to, you know, a Ferrari, hopefully,” Campbell said. “It is similar.”

Aurand also agreed that it is structurally similar to the old formula.

“The base can always go up if we need more money and down if we don’t have money available,” he said. “Right now, we’re just trying to get the framework in place. How we divide the pie will be set, and then how big the pie is will come later.”

In its ruling, the Kansas Supreme Court cited concerns that the state was failing to provide roughly one-fourth of its public school students with basic math and reading skills.

All-day kindergarten would become fully funded under the bill within three years, Campbell said, and money has been targeted to help children identified by the high court as falling behind.

“We’ve got to start earlier and close the gap for those at the end that are maybe falling out,” Campbell said. “It’s a whole complicated system.”

One of the primary criticisms of the old formula was that it was very complicated, said Rep. Nancy Lusk, an Overland Park Democrat.

“This is definitely more complicated,” she said.

The fact that more than 100 districts would lose funding was a sore point for some as they reviewed the proposal.

We’ll “wait and see,” Lusk said. “But when you have that many districts losing, it may be dead on arrival.”

Hunter Woodall: 785-354-1388, @HunterMw