Law & Courts

Districts Cheer Kansas K-12 Aid Deal, Despite Uncertainties

By Andrew Ujifusa — April 15, 2014 3 min read
Red-shirted members of the Kansas National Education Association raise their hands to show support for public schools in the gallery of the Kansas House chamber in Topeka earlier this month.

Local education officials in Kansas say they’re pleased with the school funding changes state lawmakers agreed to earlier this month to satisfy a state Supreme Court ruling on education aid, but they say the solution doesn’t provide the ideal level of long-term stability for districts.

In addition to a modest per-student spending increase by the state, lawmakers decided to place a great deal of the funding increase in the hands of local districts by giving them greater financial flexibility when seeking tax increases to provide more money for their schools.

“For most districts, this is something that will be helpful. This will certainly be the biggest increase in funding for these programs that we’ve had in a long time,” said Mark Tallman, a lobbyist for the Kansas Association of School Boards.

The K-12 finance changes followed weeks of intense negotiations in the Kansas Legislature stemming from the court ruling March 7 that said the state’s education funding system was inequitable.

In the end, the state agreed to expand its general fund spending on education by $121 million, according to an analysis by the school boards association.

However, major K-12 policy changes were tacked onto the school-finance deal late in negotiations between lawmakers. In addition to establishing a new tax-credit scholarship program to increase school choice in the state, legislators also agreed to eliminate due-process protections for teachers, which means they can be dismissed from their jobs more easily.

Gov. Sam Brownback, a Republican, expressed his satisfaction with the deal, saying that it even exceeded what was required by the ruling in the Gannon v. State of Kansas case.

That ruling, issued by the Kansas Supreme Court on March 7, said the state’s K-12 funding system was inequitable, and required legislators to expand education funding through both operating and capital budget increases. It also ordered a lower court to review the question of whether the state’s system is also inadequate.

Local Power, Uncertainty

The legislature agreed to a $14 per-student spending increase for the 2014-15 academic year, boosting the state’s spending to $3,852 per child. But a key portion of the plan lies in changes to “local option” budgets—a level of additional tax revenue districts can seek from voters.

Lawmakers agreed to increase the cap on additional funding that districts could seek through ballot items, a cap that’s based on a theoretical per-student spending figure. Instead of being capped at an additional 31 percent of that per-student figure, districts can seek up to 33 percent.

They also raised those per-student spending figures by $57, up to $4,490, but only for the 2014-15 and 2015-16 academic years. After that, the figure will revert to $4,433.

In effect, the budget deal to satisfy Gannon means that a good portion of the increase in spending, while made possible by the change in the state law to allow for a larger cap, will actually come from local tax increases. But the temporary nature of at least a portion of the deal means that the long-term planning for school districts may become difficult.

In addition, the legislative package actually decreases some funding for some classes of at-risk students, including those receiving free meals. This means that the $14 per-student increase in the state’s base funding won’t automatically translate to all students in all schools.

Choice and Bargaining Rights

As lawmakers negotiated and fought for votes to change K-12 finance and satisfy the state Supreme Court, they also decided to make dramatic, controversial shifts in policy related to both school choice and teacher policy.

The legislation creates a tax-credit scholarship program wherein private corporations can make donations to a program providing scholarships for low-income and special education students to attend private schools.

But the easing of teacher-licensure requirements and elimination of teachers’ due process rights caused an uproar at the Kansas National Education Association, although the union said it was pleased with the financial changes in the bill. The union said these changes meant the budget deal would “silence” teachers and “opens the classroom door to people without background or training.”

“We’re not opposed to taking legal recourse if that becomes necessary,” said Marcus Baltzell, a spokesman for the union.

A version of this article appeared in the April 16, 2014 edition of Education Week as Kansas K-12 Aid Deal Cheers Local Officials, Despite Uncertainties

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