Kansas Panel Urges Large Infusion Of State Aid to Schools
Kansas lawmakers need to add roughly $215 million in new education spending to keep schools afloat until the state can overhaul the way it pays for schools, a task force assembled by Gov. Bill Graves recommends in a new report.
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|Read the report of the Kansas Governor's School Finance Task Force.|
The report from the 13-member task force also urges the state to conduct a professional evaluation of what it costs to provide a "suitable" education to Kansas students. The state should determine that cost before changing the current school funding formula, which the legislature established in 1992, task force members said in their Nov. 17 report.
"What the Kansas legislature has done for decades is just pick a number out of the air" when setting state education spending, said Sen. John Vratil, a Republican lawmaker who served on the school funding task force. "They've been guessing."
Until the formula can be changed, though, the representatives of the legislative, education, business, and legal communities who served on the task force also recommend that the state spend about $103 million in the next fiscal year to increase the state per-pupil-spending rate to $4,000 annually, from the current $3,820.
Of the remaining $112 million in spending the task force recommends, nearly $63 million would go to special education. In addition, the panel calls for $11 million to provide incentives for districts to devise alternative compensation plans for teachers, including merit pay. Additional incentives would be provided for districts that improved student achievement and used technology effectively.
The total state general-fund budget for Kansas schools for the current fiscal year is $2.19 billion.
Some Republican legislators contend that they will not be able to raise spending on schools by the amount the report recommends without making significant cuts in other parts of the budget, or passing a tax increase—options that they say would be politically difficult in the upcoming legislative session.
But Mr. Vratil maintains that the feasibility of a tax increase would depend on the extent to which the GOP governor, who is midway through his second and final term in office, chose to support one.
"The Kansas legislature has a clear choice," Mr. Vratil said. "It can either vote to support a tax increase and provide a quality, first-rate education, or it can choose to provide a second- rate, less-than-quality education and not raise taxes."
Mr. Graves has not yet said how he will respond to the task force's recommendations, said Don Brown, a spokesman for the governor. The task force on school finance is one of seven such groups assembled by the governor last February to conduct thorough analyses of various topics that have proven contentious in the legislature.
Some Kansas districts have mounted legal challenges to the current funding formula, which allows districts to spend 25 percent more than the amount allocated to them by the state on a per-pupil basis. But those pending lawsuits did not play a part in the task force's negotiations, Mr. Brown said.
The creation of the task force "was not reactionary in any way," he added. "It's just that there is a realization that the formula was created in 1992 under a lot of political pressures, and a lot of individuals are trying to find out if there's a cleaner, more accountable way to arrive at school funding levels in our state."
Lt. Gov. Gary Sherrer, a Republican, said that the current political climate, "where tax increases are almost automatically rejected," would make it difficult to fund the task force's recommendations. However, he said in an interview, "if those who are supportive of this proposal can get their message out and get people to buy in to this vision, then it can be done."
Still, some members of the Kansas education community say the increases recommended by the task force make up just a portion of what the state will need to spend to finance its schools adequately. Mark E. Tallman, a lobbyist for the Kansas Association of School Boards, said that his organization is a part of a broader coalition of education groups that has recommended that the state will eventually need to add $650 million in annual funding for schools to address current deficiencies.
"We think that the task force was not willing to recommend the amount of money necessary to do what it is really going to take to sustain a high-quality education system," Mr. Tallman said.
Vol. 20, Issue 13, Page 17