New Kansas School Funding Formula Proposal Raises Questions And Hackles

Apr 3, 2016

Sen. Steve Abrams and Rep. Ron Highland are the authors of a new Kansas school funding formula.
Credit Sam Zeff / KCUR

A new school funding formula for Kansas schools that would replace the current block grant scheme was filed just under the wire last month before lawmakers adjourned for a month-long recess.

Whether that bill passes or even gets a hearing is in question, but what's not in question is the concern educators and some legislators have about the 98-page bill.

The legislation (HB 2741) is mostly the work of the two education committee chairmen in the legislature: Rep. Ron Highland, Republican from Wamego, and Sen. Steve Abrams, Republican from Arkansas City.

“Simply because of the people who have authored this I think it’s very clear that there are concepts that are really important to understand,” Kansas Association of School Boards Associate Executive Director Mark Tallman told a KASB webinar Friday.

One of those concepts is that the bill continues to increase incentives for parents to put their children into private or religious schools. The measure creates something called the Kansas Education Freedom Act. It would allow parents to use 70 percent of whatever the per pupil state aid to their home district is to pay for private schools, online schools, home schooling or tutors. Those accounts would be established with the Kansas State Treasurer. 

The plan does require these students to receive instruction in math, science and social studies. However, the bill gives the state treasurer, not the Kansas State Department of Education, regulatory oversight of both the finances and the academics.

“People should be outraged by this," says state Rep. Melissa Rooker, a moderate Republican from Fairway.

The bill does not require children educated under this plan to take state assessment tests. “Are these kids actually being educated effectively and are they living up to some of the same expectations the state places on our public schools,” Rooker said recently on KCUR's political podcast Statehouse Blend.  

The bill does reintroduce a formula that provides more money for students who live in poverty, are English language learners or live a long distance from school.

What it doesn't do is simplify the formula. One of the complaints from Republican Gov. Sam Brownback and some legislators was the previous formula was just too complicated to understand.

However, the equation for transportation aid runs two pages and contains this passage:
"multiply the number of students determined under subsection (b)(3) by two (5) divide the amount determined under subsection (b)(2) by the product obtained under subsection (b)(4); (6) add one to the quotient obtained under subsection (b)(5); (7) multiply the sum obtained under subsection (b)(6) by the amount determined under subsection (b)(3); (8) divide the amount determined under subsection (b)(1) by the product obtained under subsection (b)(7)".

It goes on for another ten lines and then requires a graph to figure out the actual cost.

The bill recognizes that smaller districts are by nature a little more inefficient than larger ones so base per pupil aid goes up as districts get smaller:

  • For districts with fewer than 400 students, base aid is $8,490/student.
  • Districts with 400 to 999 students, base aid is $7,269/student.
  • Districts with 1,000 to 1,999 students, base aid is $6,137/student.
  • Districts with 2,000 or more students, base aid is $5,763/student. 

But educators are worried about what they call a 'ledge'. For instance if a district goes from 1,999 students to just one more, then state aid drops $374 for every pupil.

There is a "hold harmless" provision in the measure for two years for districts that might lose funding under the formula.

Another concern for educators is how they can use state aid. Under the bill, state money could not be used for food service or extracurricular activities. Right now, districts can use state money to hold down the cost of lunches. Under this bill the cost of meals would have to go up or locally raised property taxes would be needed to supplement the cost.

State money would also be forbidden in everything from football to debate to band.

“I am blown away by how narrow the definition of what the funding could pay for is," says Rooker. The bill is also a little unclear about what is and what isn't an extracurricular activity. “Band, that’s a class. It’s also an extracurricular activity. This bill makes it very difficult to understand if band will be paid for or not,” she says.

But even raising local taxes becomes more cumbersome. First, the bill raises property taxes collected for education by the state from 20 mills to 35 mills. The extra revenue collected would, under this bill, replace local property taxes known as the Local Option Budget, or LOB.

However, districts could raise an unlimited amount of local revenue under the bill, something near and dear to many in Johnson County. But there are hoops to jump through. First, the tax would have to be approved by voters and could only remain in place for five years. Also, the money could only go for classroom costs but that class must be made available to the rest of the state through the internet. 

The bill also sets up success grants for districts based on how their graduates are doing and encourages efficiencies by setting aside an unspecified pool of money to reward educators who come up with ways to save money. 

“Some of this is being done because the Legislature wants to save money” says Tallman from the KASB. "They're not looking to have any new money anytime soon.We’re going to make you take efficiencies that are going to save the state money not spend new money.”

The bill has been sent to the house Appropriations Committee which is exempt from most rules so it can take up new legislation even this late in the game.

But pushing a bill so complicated through the veto session could be a difficult task, especially since the first order of business will be satisfying the state Supreme Court that the legislature has fixed the equity issue.

Sam Zeff covers education for KCUR. He's also co-host of KCUR's political podcast Statehouse Blend. Follow him on Twitter @samzeff.