Kansas Senate President Says School Funding Formula Should Focus On At-Risk Students

Mar 10, 2017

Kansas Senate President Susan Wagle says just pouring additional money into a new school funding formula is not the best way to serve at-risk students.
Credit Stephen Koranda / KPR

The president of the Kansas Senate says a new school funding formula needs to focus on the quarter of students who are at-risk and not meeting state standards. And simply adding money to a funding formula won’t solve the problem, she says.

Sen. Susan Wagle, a Republican from Wichita, says the federal Head Start program is a good model on how to help at-risk children.

“That at-risk student doesn’t have the advantage of going home and having mom and dad say, ‘It’s time to do homework. Turn off the television and let me help you with it,’” Wagle said on the KCUR political podcast Statehouse Blend Kansas.

Wagle’s comments come as the Legislature is facing a June 30 deadline to write a new school funding formula that meets the state Supreme Court’s test for adequacy and equity. In its ruling last week in the Gannon case, the court said schools will be closed if lawmakers fail to pass a formula that meets constitutional muster.

However, the justices didn’t specify an amount the Legislature must spend. “We have previously held that total spending is not the touchstone of adequacy,” according to the ruling. But the justices also focused much of their ruling on making sure that the 25 percent of children in Kansas whose work is below standards get much of the attention.

Wagle suggested that additional money could be spent beefing up other programs rather than just pouring it into a school funding formula.

“It’s almost an intervention in the home that helps you be successful in dealing with at-risk (students). You have to get the kids into the classroom. Some of them don’t come on a daily basis. Some of them are hungry,” Wagle says.

Wagle also says she has directed her staff to make sure Kansas is getting all the federal money it’s due for at-risk education from the federal government.

On Wednesday Wagle formed a new Senate committee to work on a new school funding formula as a response to the Gannon case.

Sen. Molly Baumgardner, a Republican from Louisburg and chairwoman of the Senate Education Committee, was one of those appointed. She says it would be “folly” for the Legislature to ignore Wagle’s worries about at-risk children as they discuss education funding.

“Our goal is that we have a formula that doesn’t put us in perpetual litigation,” Baumgardner says. 

Attorney Alan Rupe, who represented the school districts in the case, says lawmakers don’t have to reinvent the wheel to help kids in poverty or those who are English language learners.

“There’s a mechanism to do it: the old formula,” he says.

Rupe also worries that Wagle might want to move money around so at-risk students get a bigger share of the pot. “The money has to come from somewhere, and if you take it from other kids you’re right back in court.”

Some estimates say an additional $800 million might be needed to solve adequacy, while other estimates are lower. But any additional money for education will be a burden as lawmakers scramble to fix a $1 billion deficit over the next two years.

Sam Zeff is co-host of the political podcast Statehouse Blend Kansas and covers education and politics for KCUR and the Kansas News Service. Follow him on Twitter @SamZeff.