A start-over proposal on Kansas school funding left education circles uncertain and uneasy Friday. For others, it held the hope of dramatic reform.
Outlined in broad strokes Friday, the plan from Gov. Sam Brownback stirred fears that he is looking for a way to cut school spending to help make income tax cuts sustainable.
“It’s always a little bit confusing at the beginning, but this time it’s just downright baffling,” said Mark Desetti, lobbyist for the Kansas National Education Association, a group that is regularly critical of Brownback.
Blaming the formula for driving up state spending, the governor called on lawmakers to repeal the current calculus for dividing education dollars and replace it with short-term block grants. In the meantime, he wants to freeze education funding at 2015 levels.
Moving to block grants is not as politically difficult as radically changing the funding formula, which would probably set up a heated battle pitting school districts against one another, said state budget director Shawn Sullivan.
“There’s not the same scenario of winners and losers,” Sullivan said Friday.
Meanwhile, education officials grappled with what the governor’s proposal means for local school districts — a question for which there was no clear answer Friday. It’s unknown, for instance, what would happen to local school districts’ ability to raise their property taxes to supplement state funding.
Officials from some of the state’s largest school districts — Olathe, Shawnee Mission and Wichita — said they could not comment because they hadn’t sorted out the governor’s plan yet.
“There are more unknowns than knowns,” said Diane Gjerstad, lobbyist for Wichita Public Schools.
Even the Democratic caucus was reluctant to comment until looking through the governor’s proposed budget more closely.
However, a lawyer for the school districts challenging state education funding in court warned that Brownback’s plan might commit the state to a funding level that is already deemed unconstitutional.
Alan Rupe points out that Brownback has said he wants to rewrite the formula to hold down state spending.
“The Legislature cannot make decisions solely based on what the state can afford,” he said.
While the governor’s plan appears to keep school funding flat, critics pointed out that it forces local schools to pick up about $44 million a year in retirement system contributions for teachers.
Rupe said the governor is forcing local school districts to pick up additional costs while telling them to make do with an unconstitutional funding level.
Mark Tallman, lobbyist for the Kansas Association of School Boards, cautioned that freezing funding levels — even for a short time — could force districts to absorb rising expenses such as increasing enrollment, special student populations and pension contributions.
“Even though it appears to be level funding, the actual impact (on) school operations is going to be a negative,” Tallman said.
The Brownback administration couched the plan more as a wash, pointing out that the governor wants to put money in some areas while cutting money for retirement expenses.
Conservative lawmakers badly want to rewrite the school funding formula, which they say is arcane and doesn’t accurately measure the cost of good schools.
They are particularly critical of a series of weighted factors that provide districts more money based on a dozen criteria, including the number of at-risk or bilingual students enrolled in a district.
They say the formula inflates the number of students because it counts some students more than once for funding purposes.
Sen. Jim Denning, an Overland Park Republican, said the governor’s plan buys the Legislature time to see if there is an appetite for reworking the funding formula.
He hopes the idea will encourage school districts to negotiate on a new funding plan.
“If we are successful in giving the schools that block grant,” Denning said, “it will bring everybody to the table rather than just being disengaged and not wanting to come up with a solution.”
Sen. Ty Masterson, chairman of the Senate Ways and Means Committee, said a school formula rewrite is long overdue. The governor’s plan, he said, is a “great opportunity to make a change.”
Instead of a dramatic overhaul that sets off a political firestorm, he said, the governor’s plan gives the state a chance to ease into a new finance model.
“A block grant in the long term is not sustainable,” Masterson said, “but there is a rationale for having a formula that puts money where it is needed.”
The Wichita Eagle’s Dion Lefler contributed to this report.