Education Funding

Closing Acts Near in a Pair of K-12 Funding Dramas

By Daarel Burnette II — June 16, 2017 3 min read
Kansas Gov. Sam Brownback gives a statement after state lawmakers overrode the Republican governor’s veto of a bill raising income taxes by $1.2 billion over two years. Revenue from the increase is to go in part toward increased school funding.

The yearslong and contentious school funding disputes in Washington state and Kansas could come to a head in a matter of weeks, if not sooner.

Kansas’ supreme court could soon decide whether a new school funding formula passed by its state legislature satisfies the court’s order that the state provide enough money in a way that helps students meet basic standards.

Meanwhile, the Washington legislature is entangled in yet another special session, where lawmakers are trying to come up with an answer to the state’s high-court demand in 2012 that the state shoulder more of the salary costs for teachers. Districts now pay the majority of those costs.

After several setbacks, both Washington and Kansas’ courts have said in hearings this past year that they will seriously consider shutting down schools if legislators fail to live up to their rulings.

Raising Taxes

Kansas’ legislature this month passed two sweeping bills that would reverse a series of controversial tax hikes and provide the state’s financially strained school districts with more than $293 million over the next two years.

Gov. Sam Brownback, a Republican, vetoed the tax hike approved by lawmakers, but proponents of the bill overrode it. Brownback signed the bill into law last week. Similar to the tax bill, the legislature could override Brownback’s veto if there are enough votes.

The tax legislation would raise $1.2 billion over two years by increasing income tax rates and ending an exemption for more than 330,000 farmers and business owners, according to the Associated Press. It also would provide more than $10 million in state scholarships for students in academically struggling schools to attend a school of their choice.

What’s more, the measure would provide funds under a new finance formula set up under a separate piece of legislation, which is intended to more effectively distribute money to close achievement gaps, an issue at the center of the long-running Gannon v. Kansas school finance case.

The court ruled earlier this year that the state’s school funding model gave short shrift to academically struggling students by not providing enough resources to help them meet the most basic standards. The court last year threatened to shut down the state’s public schools if the legislature didn’t come up with a formula that distributed funds more equitably among districts.

While Kansas educators and Democrats in the legislature have interpreted the Gannon v. Kansas ruling to mean that the state owes schools close to $400 million over the next two years, the state’s more-conservative legislators interpreted the ruling to mean that the legislature should crack down on its academically wayward schools. The most recent fight in Topeka took place in late-night meetings in the capitol’s chambers and involved a host of committees in both the Senate and House. Legislators were trying to craft both an education bill and a tax plan that would satisfy the court and the state’s fiscally conservative base—not an easy task in Kansas.

“It’s wrong to put our kids, schools, and communities through that risk,” Sen. Lynn Rogers, a Democrat, said of potential school closings by the court.

Washington Standoff

Washington’s legislative standoff hinges on how to pour billions more dollars into the state’s coffers for teacher raises and has placed the state in serious risk of a state government shutdown if the budget isn’t passed. Since the court ruled in the 2012 McCleary v. State of Washington case, the legislature has expanded all-day kindergarten and preschool but hasn’t figured out a way to pay for the most expensive increase in costs: teacher salaries.

Democrats there favor a capital-gains tax to provide $3 billion to schools and the teacher pay bump. Republicans support an increased property tax that would bring $1.4 billion to the school system’s coffers. The state doesn’t have an income tax.

Democratic Gov. Jay Inslee has pushed for carbon-emissions, capital-gains, and state business-and-occupation tax increases but recently told legislators they should learn to compromise.

Education advocates fear that a compromise won’t provide the schools with enough money to satisfy the court’s demands.

A version of this article appeared in the June 21, 2017 edition of Education Week as Closing Acts May Be Near In K-12 Funding Dramas

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