TOPEKA, Kansas (AP) — Top Republican legislators in Kansas said they’re looking to boost aid to public schools while providing them with financial stability and flexibility under an education funding plan they outlined Thursday.
But GOP leaders left key questions unanswered during and immediately after a packed Statehouse news conference. Most notably, they didn’t say how they’d pay for additional aid for schools with the state facing a projected budget shortfall approaching $600 million for the fiscal year that begins July 1.
Legislative researchers’ figures showed that total state aid for public schools would rise under the plan to more than $4.2 billion for the 2016-17 school year. It would be $333 million, or nearly 9 percent, more than the aid provided in the 2013-14 school year.
Republican leaders touted the increase, but it includes a boost in funding approved last year to meet a Kansas Supreme Court mandate in a lawsuit filed by school districts and parents in 2010. The spending boost also covers the state’s contributions to pensions for teachers, which were expected to rise significantly.
The plan would replace the state’s existing formula for distributing its aid to 286 school districts, which is designed to ensure that poor districts don’t fall behind wealthy ones. The measure incorporates Republican Gov. Sam Brownback’s proposal to give districts “block grants” instead — based on their current aid — until lawmakers can write a new formula during the next two years.
“A government formula that rolls forward over decades has to be reset, redone at some point,” said Senate Ways and Means Committee Chairman Ty Masterson, an Andover Republican, and one of the plan’s architects. “We’re there.”
The plan would prevent unanticipated and automatic increases in spending that have occurred under the current school funding formula.
The state’s current budget problems arose after lawmakers aggressively cut personal income taxes in 2012 and 2013 at Brownback’s urging to stimulate the economy. GOP leaders want to preserve the tax cuts as much as possible in closing the shortfall, and aid to public schools is the biggest item in the state’s annual budget.
“We’re in the middle of the process,” said House Appropriations Committee Chairman Ron Ryckman Jr., an Olathe Republican and another architect of the plan. “This is obviously one half of the balance sheet.”
Mark Tallman, a lobbyist for the Kansas Association of School Boards, said it’s encouraging that legislators are talking about increasing aid to schools, but educators need to know how they plan to pay for it.
Kansas Legislature: http://www.kslegislature.org
In Topeka Thursday, Representative Ron Ryckman, Jr., a Republican from Olathe said, “We have found that the formula is broken, that is not a surprise to any of us. We must retire the failed formula that has restricted the use of school funding dollars leaving hundreds of millions of dollars out of the classroom.”
The Chief of Staff for KCK Public Schools, David Smith, disagreed.
“The problem is not the formula. The problem, the real challenge we face, is funding the formula,” explained Smith. “It feels as if the block grants are a way to avoid that question and that’s something that concerns districts throughout the state.”
KSN spoke with two attorneys in the Wichita area who are advocates for additional funding for Kansas schools. They, too, told KSN News that the formula is not “broken,” but instead, argue that it must be adequately funded in order to work.
“The formula is functional and, if funded correctly, has kids achieving what they need to achieve to have equal educational opportunity,” said Alan Rupe.
Rupe says the block grant basically allows legislators to claim that there is new money for schools.
“There’s not new money,” said Rupe. “The $300 million they talk about being new money is KPERS money, and that $130 million worth of equity money, that should be put in a shoe box and is already spent.”
Rupe continued, “It’s time that the legislature stepped up to their constitutional responsibilities and did what needed to be done, which is fund education to an ‘adequate’ level, not just what they decide they want to spend.”
John Robb told KSN that regardless of the formula, schools in Kansas are underfunded.
“The courts didn’t find the formula was broken. The courts found the schools were underfunded,” said Robb. “Legislative leaders’ proposal is that if we just kick the can down the road and do away with this formula, that that somehow fixes something. It doesn’t.”