Look back to see the future of school finance in Kansas.
In its unanimous decision of March 2, the Kansas Supreme Court determined the “block grant” scheme for funding schools did not meet the constitutional standard of adequacy and ordered the Kansas Legislature back to the drawing board to write a school finance law that meets constitutional muster no later than June 30.
Four fundamental revisions of school finance over the last 50 years, coupled with recent missteps in state finance, foretell what to expect from state lawmakers over the next couple months.
Overall school funding will substantially increase. While the court emphasized that “total spending is not the touchstone for adequacy in education,” its order admonished lawmakers that “the state should not ignore” experts’ cost estimates which in fact point to a sizeable boost in base funding for schools.
School funding will rely more upon state sales and income taxes and less on property taxes. The disastrous tax experiment of 2012 followed by jumps in sales and property taxes have narrowed options for lawmakers. As a result income taxes now stand as the only realistic choice for funding schools and rebalancing state finance. The tax bill passed by strong legislative majorities earlier this session looked back to tax policy prior to the experiment as a starting point. This alternative is in line with the long-term trend of reducing reliance on property taxes for school funding as expressed in every prior school finance revision.
The formula for distributing state funds to individual school districts will return to base funding plus district weightings. Lawmakers represent school districts that vary widely in geography, wealth, and student characteristics, among other factors, and they must come to agreement in apportioning funds through a political process. The current court cited its earlier decision in this regard: “[W]e do not dictate to the legislature how it should constitutionally fund K-12 public school education; we only review its efforts to ensure they do not run afoul of the Kansas Constitution.”
The formula crafted in 1992 included district weightings, such as numbers of at-risk students and students’ distance from schools, to allocate funds among districts and worked effectively for nearly 20 years. While this formula provides a point of departure, the court did highlight that revisions must address those students, particularly minorities and at-risk students, who are not performing at grade levels.
Action on school finance will be bipartisan. Every school finance revision has enjoyed bipartisan legislative support. While Republicans control roughly two-thirds of all legislative seats, roughly half of them question the value of public schools. That reality plus a disengaged governor assures that school finance reform can only be enacted through a bipartisan legislative coalition.
Final action on school finance and the revenues required to fund schools will be resolved in the last hour on the last day of the legislative session, likely this coming June. A billion-dollar hole in state finance complicates the work of state lawmakers. As a result, school finance must go hand in hand with a revenue package that funds it. Early votes last month on taxes provide encouragement that legislative majorities are in place to address these challenges, even though the governor and remaining hard-right legislators show no signs of being part of the solution.
A new class of legislators plus engaged legislative leaders should give Kansans optimism that new directions in school finance and sanity in state finance lie ahead, possibly even before late June.
H. Edward Flentje is professor emeritus at Wichita State University.