Lawmakers ponder how to pay for K-12 education

WICHITA, Kan. (KSNW) – President Donald Trump wants Betsy Devos as Secretary of Education. Devos has been vocal about school choice, where taxpayer money could go to private schools.

KSN asked lawmakers if school choice could happen in Kansas, given the idea was brought up last year and is still being considered by some lawmakers this year.

“I am in total favor of parents having school choice, what I am opposed to is taking state taxpayer dollars and putting them into private schools,” said House Minority Leader Jim Ward, D-Wichita. “We have one constitutional duty, to provide a public education system and that’s where we should put our focus.”

Ward said that he wants lawmakers to focus on providing an adequate education dollar amount, and he fears other issues like school vouchers or school choice could be a distraction.

Other lawmakers agree, there needs to be a specific focus this year. Kansas has to come up with a new way to pay for K-12 education. Two years ago so-called block “grants” were issued to schools, freezing funding. Those block grants expire this year, and a new school funding formula has to be completed.

“We are going to focus on just, right now, focus on the formula for funding our public schools,” said Sen. Molly Baumgardner, R – Louisburg, who is on the education committee in the Kansas Senate. “And I think it just doesn’t make sense to jump ahead of what might happen on a federal level.”

Baumgardner said that block grant was a two-year promise from lawmakers, not to touch education funding.

But, the Kansas budget is in crisis, according to some Republican and Democrat lawmakers. The state has to find about $1 billion over the next year and a half to balance the budget.

School leaders say lawmakers have a lot of work ahead of them.

John Allison is Superintendent of USD 259, Wichita Schools, which is the largest school district in the state.

“Well, I think there’s still a lot of questions to be answered from the Kansas legislature when you look at the financial hole that they are in,” said Allison. “I know that there’s different ideas being bantered about and that’s including cuts to schools. And I think after seven years of cuts to schools, I think it’d be difficult especially during this time of the year.”

Allison said he talks to lawmakers on a fairly regular basis, and said lawmakers are just trying to get their arms around the fiscal deficit for now. He also said he has told some lawmakers that so-called school choice is not a level playing field when it comes to using taxpayer money in private schools.

“I think the big issue is around the shuffling of resources, (and that) is already critical. When you think about school choice, the problem with school choice for me is on the double standard, the idea that school choice solves some issue,” said Allison. “What it really does, as it’s been too often the way that it’s been implemented, is you’re shifting critical resources.”

Some Kansas legislators say school choice will gain some steam with lawmakers in the state. But, they also say, leadership ideas on the federal level likely won’t be a concern in Kansas.

“And I think that we need to have a really straight forward approach on funding that is reliable and predictable,” said Baumgardner. “So that at the end of each school year we can determine if that was a success because the goal is student success.”