Steve Rose

Steve Rose: Kansas Rep. Melissa Rooker on wrong track with school funding plan

There is no argument over whether schools in Kansas are underfunded, just as the Supreme Court has ruled. The Legislature must increase the school budget.
There is no argument over whether schools in Kansas are underfunded, just as the Supreme Court has ruled. The Legislature must increase the school budget. tljungblad@kcstar.com

Melissa Rooker is one of my favorite Kansas legislators. She is a strong moderate, shows great leadership skills and is incredibly responsive to her constituents.

So it is especially painful to see the Republican from Fairway join the dark side. What in the world is she doing there?

Some of us have been fighting for 25 years to see the 1992 Kansas school finance formula wiped off the earth. It has been a disaster for the Shawnee Mission School District in particular, although other Johnson County districts have felt the pain as well. Ironically, Rooker’s legislative district sits within the Shawnee Mission School District, where Superintendent Jim Hinson has been a vocal opponent of the 1992 formula.

Rooker is now the main leader in a movement to return to that disastrous school formula, which determines how much funding districts across the state receive. The Kansas Supreme Court has ordered the Legislature to come up with a new funding plan to replace the temporary block grants that have been in place since the Legislature dumped the 1992 formula two years ago.

Maybe Rooker should have been in the Legislature in 1992 when every member of the Johnson County delegation but one voted against that formula.

The thrust of the bill can be summed up by one 1992 Kansas City radio broadcast. Then-Gov. Joan Finney, a Democrat, responded on the air to Heather, a high school junior at a Shawnee Mission school who called in to ask the governor a question.

Heather’s question went something like this: With the new way schools will be financed, I am afraid my school will have to cut back on some of its advanced courses. Is that right?

Finney explained to Heather that she needed to understand that it would not be fair if her school offered an advanced course and a high school junior in western Kansas did not have the same opportunity.

There you have it. The idea was to settle for mediocrity statewide, rather than allow a school district to offer excellence. The Kansas National Education Association, the teachers’ union, fought for that 1992 formula because in their view, Johnson County was an outlier that needed to be brought into line.

What Heather and other Johnson County students lost in 1992 was almost all local authority and the option for local residents to raise as much money as they desired to make their schools not just equal, but world class. As a compromise, local districts were allowed to raise some funds but never enough to allow for enhancements.

The Supreme Court never required that. The justices did rule that school districts had to be treated equitably with respect to statewide funding. They did not preclude schools from using additional local funding to excel.

Rooker, who is not a lawyer, believes raising more funds locally is unconstitutional. Legal experts have different opinions. Why align yourself with those who take the least favorable view of expanded local funding?

There is no argument over whether schools in Kansas are underfunded, just as the Supreme Court has ruled. The Legislature must increase school spending. But the Supreme Court also said local funding can be part of the overall budget.

There are probably a thousand school finance formulas that the Legislature could come up with that would be better than a 1992 retread.

In terms of how funds are distributed, the Rooker plan is similar to the proposal that a House committee is considering.

Rooker is leading the charge into a full retreat. Before she waves the white flag, she should fight for a formula that is equitable and adequate and allows local school districts greater funding authority. Jumping on the 1992 bandwagon is a rare lapse in judgment.

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