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FAQ: School Finance Options For Kansas Lawmakers

Brad Wilson
Flickr — CC

In the basket of thorny issues facing Kansas lawmakers how to fund public education is certainly among the thorniest.

Led by Gov. Sam Brownback and conservative Republicans, the old funding formula was scrapped two years ago in favor of a block grant scheme that expires July 1.

Starting Monday morning the House K-12 Budget Committee starts discussions on a new formula.

And with that comes some questions: 

What is this K-12 Budget Committee?

The committee was created by new Speaker of the House Ron Ryckman to bring legislative expertise to bear on the problem in the 2017 session. For the first couple of weeks of the session the committee members nibbled around the edges, mostly talking about an efficiency study commissioned by the state last year. But now the real work begins.

Are there school funding plans already out there?

Yes. There are two, or maybe two-and-a-half depending on how you look at it. There's a moderate plan, a more conservative plan, and then there's another plan that's a bit of a mystery.

What’s the moderate plan?

Legislators got their first look at the details over the weekend. It was written by GOP Rep. Melissa Rooker from Fairway with plenty of input from other moderates and Democrats. They've been working on this plan since the summer.

It looks a lot like the old formula: a per-pupil allocation with additional money for English language learners, for students from small districts, for those who have to travel a long way on the bus, and based on a number of other factors.

The Rooker plan has a few new elements. It would include money for all-day kindergarten and put more into early learning. The plan would also boost state aid to districts to cover inflation for four years.

So what's in the conservative formula?

Rep. Scott Schwab, a Republican from Olathe who is also Speaker Pro Tem, wrote it. This plan is actually an update to a bill Schwab filed last year. The most important thing to know about his plan is that it would extend block grants for a year while any new formula is tested in four districts, one in each of the Kansas's congressional districts. 

And it has some other provisions conservatives like, such as an accreditation system based on school performance, school site councils that would include parents and local businesses, and a mechanism that would allow voters to turn down any property tax increase.

Wait, the conservative formula would extend block grants? Didn't the courts rule those unconstitutional?

Yes. That's a problem several lawmakers have pointed out.

What’s known about this mystery plan?

Not much but we do know a couple of things. First off, it will be presented by Mike O'Neal who ran the Kansas Chamber of Commerce until a few months ago and is a former Speaker of the House. He's a man who still has a lot of influence around the statehouse.

Those who follow school finance expect his plan (committee Chairman Rep. Larry Campbell from Olathe calls it a “concept”) to hew pretty closely to things the chamber has championed in the past — supporting school choice, emphasizing efficiency and encouraging schools to spend down reserve funds first.

So when can we expect to see a formula lawmakers will vote on?

Well, before they get to that, lawmakers have to figure out how to close a $300 million budget gap before July 1 and that will take up an enormous amount of time and energy. They also have to tackle tax policy – to close or not close the LLC loop hole, whether to raise marginal income tax rates or hike cigarette and liquor taxes.

But the really big unknown in the timeline is when the state Supreme Court will decide on the adequacy portion of the Gannon school funding lawsuit. It seems impossible to complete work on a school funding formula until that ruling is out.

Sam Zeffcovers education for KCUR and the Kansas News Service and is host of the political podcast Statehouse Blend Kansas. Follow him on Twitter @SamZeff.

Kansas News Service stories and photos may be republished at no cost with proper attribution and a link back to KCUR.org.

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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