Government & Politics

Brownback signs new Kansas school finance formula

Kansas Gov. Sam Brownback signed into law the Legislature’s new school finance formula Thursday.
Kansas Gov. Sam Brownback signed into law the Legislature’s new school finance formula Thursday.

Gov. Sam Brownback signed off on a new school finance formula Thursday, though it remains unclear if the formula will satisfy the Kansas Supreme Court.

Senate Bill 19 is the Kansas Legislature’s response to a March ruling from the court that the state had failed to ensure adequate funding for public schools.

Brownback said in a statement that “the legislature missed an opportunity to substantially improve the K-12 funding system.

“They did, however, direct more dollars into the classroom … encouraging responsible financial stewardship at the local level,” Brownback said “Additionally, they included a sunset on the school funding system, allowing for a regular and robust discussion about the needs of Kansas students.”

In its March ruling, the court also found that Kansas is failing to provide roughly one-fourth of its public school students with basic math and reading skills. Lawmakers talked repeatedly during negotiations on the new formula about targeting money to reach students singled out by the court as falling behind.

The legislation passed by lawmakers adds around $488 million to state school funding over two years.

One area school official said he still had concerns about the formula after Brownback signed it into law.

“It doesn’t change our belief that while there are many parts of the formula that are good, there are some things in it which kind of put the issue of equity at risk,” said David Smith, spokesman for the Kansas City, Kan., school district. “And we don’t think it’s adequate. But now at least the court can take it and make those judgments.”

Brownback had been largely quiet on school finance since lawmakers passed the new formula earlier this month. House Majority Leader Don Hineman, a Dighton Republican, noted that the governor signed the bill 15 days before the June 30 deadline the court set for the state to enact a new formula.

“That’s a pretty short timeline, but hopefully that’s enough time for them to consider the bill and issue a ruling,” he said.

Hineman said he’s confident the formula the Legislature crafted meets the court’s requirements, but that no lawmaker is entirely sure what funding level would be needed to satisfy the court.

John Robb, an attorney for the school districts suing the state, said the bill “is just inadequate in the amount of resources it gives to the schools.” He cited a study from the State Board of Education that found the state would have to spend close to $900 million over two years to meet the standards set by the court.

He also said that changes lawmakers made to the funding formula reopen the issue of equity that was settled with last year’s special session. “I would say that they violated the equity test in half a dozen or more ways,” Robb said.

If the court agrees with Robb that the bill falls short, it could lead to a statewide shutdown of the state’s school districts and require a special legislative session to fix it this summer.

“What I would expect them (the court) to do is find that it doesn’t meet the mark,” Robb said. “I don’t think they will order the schools close. What they will do is void this law, and if you void this law, schools have no ability to spend money. And that shuts the school down.”

Kansas Democrats have said they are concerned about what the court will do with the formula and criticized the funding levels in the bill as “woefully inadequate.” Some Republican lawmakers have defended the formula and the structure of the new law.

Jeff King, an attorney and former lawmaker who advised the Legislature, said lawmakers put a great deal of thought and effort into constructing a formula that would meet the court’s requirements.

“They fully funded all-day kindergarten, they partnered with the State Board of Education to target money for programs that are proven to increase performance among at-risk students,” King said. “And I think those are things that the court will recognize, appreciate and find constitutional.”

For Kansas City-area school districts, the bill boosts general state aid compared to the 2015-2016 school year, according to the Department of Education. The bill also funds all-day kindergarten and adds early childhood funding.

The added funding for school districts means:

▪ Blue Valley would see a roughly $7.78 million increase.

▪ Shawnee Mission would see an $11.2 million increase

▪ Olathe would see a $9.7 million increase.

▪ Kansas City, Kan., would get a $9.6 million increase.

Hunter Woodall: 785-354-1388, @HunterMw

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