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Kan. Plan Would Put School-Funding Onus On State Legislature

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By Lonnie Harp

Setting aside the potential obstacles posed by politics, computer printouts, and local fallout, Kansas officials have recommended a bold new school-finance plan that would shift all school-funding responsibility-and property-taxing authority--to the state.

If implemented, the proposal would profoundly reshape the way Kansas pays for its schools and challenge the principle of local funding that has guided American education throughout its history.

Members of the panel that proposed the plan late last month said they had little choice but to call for radical changes in light of a state judge's preliminary ruling arguing that, in Kansas at least, the idea that local communities pay for their schools is scarcely more than an illusion.

In a pretrial ruling setting ground rules for a legal challenge to the state's schoolfinance system, State District Judge Terry L. Bullock had declared that the Kansas constitution requires total state funding of all public schools, regardless of current practices or concepts of local school control. The state currently funds about 42 percent of Kansas public schools' budgets.

"This legislative duty is not to districts, not to schools, not to towns or cities, not to voters, not to counties, not to personal constituents," Judge Bullock wrote, "but to each schoolchild of Kansas, equally."

"Money raised by school districts through 'local' taxation is still state money," he continued. "It just hasn't been thought of that way."

Whatever its philosophy and constitutional principles, however, many observers in the state question whether the plan or any remnant of it, can survive the practical and parochial forces it is sure to face during next year's session of the legislature.

Nevertheless, the panel's radical recommendations seem likely to ensure that Kansas lawmakers and educators next year will be grappling with the basic issues of how to finance education fairly.

"To my knowledge, there's no system in the United States to ensure equal opportunity other than equal dollars," said Representative Rick Bowden, the chairman of the House Education Committee and the head of the task force. "I don't know of any other way we have right now."

Going All the Way

Although Judge Bullock's October ruling did not actually strike' down the existing school-finance system, it was taken by state officials as a clear sign that a major overhaul was in the offing, either by legislative action or judicial order. In response, Gov. Joan Finney appointed the 16-member task force to propose changes.

Consultants who worked with the task force said panelists quickly showed a willingness to go with the most comprehensive solution offered.

The group was presented with a plan based on the school-finance remedy being implemented in Texas, which established regional taxing authorities that require minimum property-tax rates; the plan also included modifications to the existing Kansas program.

It became clear, however, that panel members were interested in going further, recalled John Augenblick, one of three advisers who met with the group.

"They viewed this as an opportunity to suggest a fundamental change in the system," said Mr. Augenblick, a partner in a Denver education-consulting firm. "They chose to go all the way rather than to go halfway."

David C. Thompson, who has worked as a consultant both to school districts suing the state and the state itself, said that since the task force was not required to draft a plan that would survive politically, members simply embraced basic principles of equity.

"The judge's opinion was the final prod for them to say aloud the things that they had been told and knew were right," said Mr. Thompson, who is co-director of the University Council of Education Administrators' Center for Education Finance at Kansas State University. "It's not as if they had never heard it before, but this was the first time they've had to admit it."

Specifically, the group's recommendations call for: . A uniform, statewide property tax system for school-district operations, together with additional state revenue to fund building and maintenance projects.

. A base per-pupil appropriation to be provided to local districts by the state. Incremental increases would also be provided for bilingual-, vocational-, and special-education students, as well as for transportation of students bused more than 2.5 miles. . All revenue schools receive from state sources, such as motor-vehicle and mineral taxes, would revert to the state. Local levies would be allowed only to finance adult-education programs or pay legal judgments.

The task force also urged reforms in the state's property-appraisal system.

'Un-American' Plan?

Observers said a great distinction has to be made between the task force's proposals and what can survive legislative fights in a tight budget year.

"They can recommend anything they want," noted Mr. Augenblick. "But it's the legislature that's going to have to chew on this."

Some analysts suggested that the panel had set its sights on an ideal plan in hopes that at least some elements would remain once the legislature had completed its handiwork.

"They know this is not going to come out of the legislature looking like this, so this is a way to get good press and look good in court," said Mr. Thompson. "The way to get where they want to go is to go beyond it and then fall back."

Analysts also predicted that such retrenchment and formulation of compromise proposals would begin as soon as copies of the task force's report began to receive wide distribution last week.

The expected fallout from school officials, parents, and taxpayers turned some task-force members into critics even before the report was published.

Politicians and observers alike have raised questions about what would happen to property-tax rates under a statewide levy. Officials are also bracing for wide-ranging criticism over the state's attack on local control of schools.

"This is so contrary to our way of thinking that even people who would benefit in their own districts are unhappy with it and calling it un-American," said Senator Sheila Frahm, the vice chairman of the Senate Education Committee and a task-force member.

Representative Bowden noted, however, that the judge's opinion emphasized that the Kansas constitution provides little role for local control. "Local control is a thing of the past in a lot of ways, if you think local control is financial control," he said. "We're still leaving local control in how best to spend the money."

Statewide Tax Rate

Some hackles have already been raised as officials begin to translate the task force's philosophy into dollars and cents.

State officials have estimated that, in order to maintain current education spending, the statewide property-tax levy would have to be set at $5.86 per $100 of assessed value. Property-tax rates currently range from $0.91 to $9.78.

The task force did not take a position on the statewide tax rate, but many state officials, including Mr. Bowden, argue that the $5.86 rate is too high. The only practical strategy, he said, would be to find other funds within the state budget to lower the statewide rate to between $4.00 and $4.50.

Critics, including Ms. Frahm, said it was unlikely that the state would be able to find the money to take over full school funding.

"We're talking a lot of money," she said, citing construction and maintenance funding that would be necessary beyond the base levy and scant state resources to provide the property-tax relief mentioned by Mr. Bowden. Ms. Frahm also voiced concern about the impact on taxpayers in traditionally low- tax areas.

Officials also said the proposal clashes with the tax-cutting sentiment evident in Ms. Finney's upset victory in the 1990 election.

A proposal for a $3.00 statewide levy "was torn apart" by lawmakers during this year's session as they attempted to balance calls for property tax relief and school-funding reforms, Ms. Frfhm noted. In addition, the Governor used her line-item-veto authority to abolish a $55-million state-aid increase for schools and a measure to raise the state sales tax. Observers expect school districts to raise property taxes in order to balance this year's budgets.

Governor Finney, who empaneled the task force and charged its members to find a solution that would meet the standards outlined by Judge Bullock, has also been less than enthusiastic about the group's work.

Mary Holladay, the Governor's appointments secretary and a member of the task force, said Ms. Finney was "cautiously reviewing' the document, but had not changed her opposition to new taxes.

"She is pleased that the task force looked at the direction the judge gave in terms of children, but she has to consider the economy here," Ms. Holladay said.

Searching for Consensus

Mr. Thompson of Kansas State said that beyond the political maneuvering and debate in the state capital, another challenge will come in developing a consensus among educators over the solution.

As a consultant to three of the four school groups challenging the current funding system, Mr. Thompson said he has already used his powers of persuasion to urge the educators to think of one other instead of themselves.

"Even though I have warned the districts I work with that if they engage in selfish behavior that I'm not going to support them, I'm not sure that in the long haul they can remain true to that," he said.

Mr. Augenblick noted that, while much of the recent action has been fueled by a desire to avoid a court confrontation over school- finance, he has advised state officials not to panic as they put together a plan.

"To make up a system completely in response to the words that the judge wrote is over-interpreting. This is a lower-court opinion and there has been no trial," he said. "This is all theoretical. The thing they have to do is figure out how much this is going to cost, and the question then is will that be politically acceptable."

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