At Long Last, Kansas Lawmakers Get A Look At A School Funding Formula

Mar 21, 2017

Kansas lawmakers have waited for half the session to get a look at what will probably be the basis for a new school funding formula.

Rep. Larry Campbell, the chairman of the House K-12 Education Budget Committee, released an outline of the measure Tuesday.

It looks a lot like the formula scrapped two years ago for block grants, a funding scheme ruled unconstitutional earlier this month by the Kansas Supreme Court.

Campbell’s proposal has a per-pupil base state aid and provides extra money for English language learners, at-risk students and transportation — all things educators wanted to see.

What’s unknown is how much Campbell’s plan will cost.

“It’s hard to have a real judgment on this until you see what that number is going to be,” says Mark Desetti of the Kansas National Education Association.

That number has to satisfy a lot of people. It can’t be so high that conservatives in the Legislature will deem it dead on arrival. But it has to be high enough to gain support from moderate Republicans and Democrats.

And there must be enough new spending that the state Supreme Court will approve it.

“What we tried to do was hear what the court was telling us and build from there,” says Campbell, a Republican from Olathe.

The bill will be introduced Wednesday, and that’s when the negotiations will start. The Kansas State Department of Education (KSDE) also will release what it calls “runs,” which are spreadsheets that show exactly how much districts can expect under the proposed formula.

While it looks much like the old formula, there are some significant differences. This is “not a small change,” according to Rep. Ed Trimmer, the ranking Democrat on the K-12 committee.

First, it changes the way districts raise money locally.

The one local tax, known as the local option budget, would be divided into three taxes. It appears those three taxes would prevent local districts from raising as much as they do now. In addition, some of that money would have to be used to increase spending on at-risk students and English language learners to satisfy the state high court.

That mandate doesn’t sit well with David Smith, chief of staff of the Kansas City Kansas School District.

“If we’re really going to support students who are at-risk, we’re not going to do it by simply moving money from one pocket to another,” he says.

The bill also expands the number of low-income students who are eligible for scholarships to private or religious schools funded by tax credits. This is something crucial to gaining conservative support. But the measure requires that those schools have KSDE accreditation and perform better than public schools in the state.

“If we’re really going to support students who are at-risk, we’re not going to do it by simply moving money from one pocket to another.”

“If you’re going in this direction of state money, you better make sure that people are providing you with data and evidence that they’re making a difference for kids,” says Desetti of the KNEA.

One other thing was clear from the briefing Tuesday: Unlike previous sessions, Campbell brought all stakeholders into the process.

“I know he reached out to me the moment he became appointed to this position, before anything started, just to say his office was open. He has been true to that,” Desetti says.

Campbell has promised two days of hearings and more if needed.

Sam Zeff  covers education for KCUR and the Kansas News Service and is co-host of the political podcast Statehouse Blend Kansas. Follow him on Twitter @SamZeff. Kansas News Service stories and photos may be republished at no cost with proper attribution and a link back to KCUR.org.