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No Progress In Writing A New Kansas School Funding Formula

Sam Zeff

The hearing room in the Kansas Statehouse was packed with educators, lawmakers and lobbyists, all gathered to watch the fight over aninterim committee reportthat surprised even the closest watchers of the process.

Would the handful Democrats and moderate Republicans on the joint interim committee beat back some of the more controversial suggestions, such as saving money by pulling special needs students out of mainstream classrooms?

Or would the huge conservative majority on the panel jam through the report that also suggested taking some bonding authority away from local districts and, perhaps, even forego federal education aid?

In the end, the drama was over in a few minutes when Republican leaders decided to table the report and rewrite it. Rep. Ron Rykman Jr., a conservative Republican from Olathe, said the report lacked some balance. "I’d like to see it tied back to the actual testimony so we can use that for information to help us build a formula going forward.”

The charge from Democrats and moderate Republicans was thatthe 11-page report leaned way too heavily on information provided by the Kansas Policy Institute, a conservative think tank, and excluded testimony from school superintendents and the Kansas Association of School Boards.

“It was decidedly anti-public education because of the undue influence the Kansas Policy Institute (KPI) had in drafting this particular report,” says state Sen. Anthony Hensley, the Minority Leader from Topeka. He suggested KPI even had a hand in writing the report that was released Monday. 

But KPI's Dave Trabert, a fixture in the school funding debate in Kansas for the last few sessions, says talk over who wrote what is just a smoke screen. “It’s not about who wrote it, it’s about the material that’s in it. And raising issues about who wrote it conveniently avoided any discussion of the facts that are in the report.”

Trabert says educators and their supporters in the Legislature only want to talk about spending more money on K-12 and not the outcomes. “Frankly, one of the biggest barriers to improving public education in Kansas is a false sense of high achievement,” he says. “We don’t have high achievement. We have middling achievement in a nation that doesn’t perform well.”

So now the report has been turned over to the non-partisan Legislative Research office for a rewrite. Nobody knows when that will be done and the session is set to begin next Monday.

Rep. Ron Highland, the interim committee chair, wrote the report and says he thought it was fair to everyone. He's said that it's unlikely that a new school funding formula will pass this year and districts will have to live with another year of block grant funding, their budgets essentially frozen at last year's levels. Still, he says, lawmakers must try. “I think we have the opportunity and we owe it to our school systems and everybody else to come up with something now and get it done.”

Minority Leader Hensley says this interim committee was supposed to give the Legislature a blue print to help guide a new funding formula. He says to expect no new formula in 2016. “We really didn’t draw any specific conclusions as to developing a new school finance formula. And that’s what we were supposed to do and this committee has failed in terms of that charge.”

All of this is complicated by the 2016 elections. Some lawmakers have said they expect conservatives to force through a new formula this year because they fear losing seats in November and power next session.

Many school districts have said another year of block grant funding may force them to cut programs and staff.

Sam Zeff covers education for KCUR. He's also co-host of KCUR's political podcast Statehouse Blend. Follow him on Twitter @samzeff.

You deserve to know what your taxpayer dollars are paying for and what public officials are doing on your behalf – I’ll work to report on irresponsible government spending in the Kansas City area and shed light on controversies that slow government down. And when you hear my voice in the morning, you know you’re getting everything you need to start your day. Email me at sam@kcur.org, find me on Twitter @samzeff or call me at 816-235-5004.
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