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Brownback Asks Educators To Help Write A New School Funding Formula

Sam Zeff
KCUR 89.3

It has taken six years, but Kansas Gov. Sam Brownback finally reached out to educators and others on Wednesday to ask for ideas on how to fund public education.

The plea comes after many of Brownback's conservative legislative allies were ousted in the August primaries, and it appears more conservatives may lose their seats in November. It also comes in the final year of the block grant funding scheme passed when lawmakers scrapped the previous formula, which was popular with most school districts.

Brownback sent a letter to about 50 organizations asking for input. It was a wide variety and included the Brookings Institute, the Bonner Springs School District, the Kansas Chamber of Commerce, the Kansas Farm Bureau, Kansas City, Kansas schools and the RAND Corporation.

“For decades education funding in Kansas has been the source of, unfortunately, litigation and conflict,” Brownback said at a news conference with State Board of Education Chairman Jim McNiece and state Education Commissioner Randy Watson by his side.

Brownback said the formula should be predictable, reward quality outcomes and spend more money in the classroom.  Innovation and creativity are also important and educational opportunities for students should not be “limited to the zip code in which they live,” he said.

Some educators and lawmakers have asked why it has taken Brownback so long to ask for help.

“We’ve been calling for teachers and educators to be included for a long time now, and for more than two-thousand days into this administration, that hasn’t happened,” says Kansas National Education Association spokesman Marcus Baltzell.

Brownback called this effort a more formal way of asking for help and says he's had an ongoing education funding dialog.  “We’ve been reaching out to certain groups for some period of time, and different groups have been working on this for some period of time."

McNiece, who chairs the Kansas State Board of Education, suggested the state wasn't ready for a full discussion on how to change the way it pays for education. First, Kansas had to decide what outcomes it wanted for students. “Really, a year ago I would say we weren’t ready for this conversation," said McNiece. "If you start about money, it’s always about money. It has to be about what do we want for our students, our children and the future of our state and nation."

The Brownback letter, dated August 31, makes one thing clear: the Governor does "not plan on supporting an extension of the existing block grant funding mechanism." While the block grants are set to expire at the end of the current fiscal year, the Legislature could continue them if passing a new formula becomes too difficult.

However, Brownback said he will not hold town hall meetings and will rely on information gathered last year in a statewide tour by Watson and others from the Kansas State Department of Education.

He asked those who received his letter, as well as others, to submit ideas to his office at StudentsFirst@ks.gov by Nov. 30. Brownback says he will have school funding legislation ready to go when lawmakers return.

The Brownback news conference came on a day when the United School Administrators of Kansas unveiled a plan that would scrap school districts from collecting property taxes. Instead, all property taxes would be collected by the state and distributed as part of any new formula.

This is a radical idea, but the hope is that property tax money would be distributed more equitably because all districts would share in the money.

State Education Commissioner Watson, the former McPherson schools superintendent, wouldn't comment on the plan.  “If we start that this is good or bad or we like this or don’t like this before we’ve seen everyone, I think we will stifle that discussion and that’s what I hope we don’t do."

Sam Zeff covers education for KCUR and is co-host of the 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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