Legislature grapples with school finance future

Mar 14, 2017

TOPEKA – The Kansas Supreme Court gave an “F” to the Legislature for fulfilling its Constitutional duty to adequately fund public schools, and some legislators were steamed when they returned to work last week for first time since the March 2 decision.

“There’s nothing that says they’re the supreme authority over us,” said Rep. John Whitmer, R-Wichita.

Did they make any suggestion whose taxes we should raise? Whitemer asked.

The Supreme Court ruling did not require a specific additional sum or even flatly order more money, although that’s the interpretation.

“What if the court said $2 billion. Ponder that. At what point do we say, ‘Enough is enough,’” Whitmer said in a House Republican caucus March 8.

“Holler”

The Supreme Court ruled in Gannon v. State of Kansas that the state’s two-year block grant funding program set to expire June 30 is unconstitutional. It also faulted the adequacy of school funding because about one-fourth of Kansas students are below grade level in math and reading. Further, the achievement gap is widening, leaving behind African-American and Hispanic students, English language learners, and students with disabilities or from lower-income households. Data shows the gap has worsened since 2011, which corresponds to funding reductions.

“I just hope that there’s a way that we can craft this formula that we can look at targeting money to a fourth of the students without having to throw more money at it,” said Sen. Julia Lynn, R-Olathe.

“My constituents are starting to holler,” Lynn told her fellow Senate Republicans in a caucus.

They are pointing to the layers of administrators in school districts and to administrative salaries, she said. It might be a good time to look at caps that would give school districts directions on how to use state funds, she said.

“Historic”

“If we all could, I wish we would just stop talking about the dollars,” Rep. Larry Campbell, R-Olathe told his fellow House Republicans. “We need to put that off to the end,” he said.

Speaker of the House Ron Ryckman Jr., R-Olathe, selected the Olathe banker to be chairman of the K-12 Education Budget Committee, which is taking the lead writing a new school finance formula.

“What we’re trying to do is come up with a formula we can be proud of,” Campbell said. They started working on the second day of the session, which opened Jan. 9, and have been working “almost every day,” he said. The committee meets in a conference room equipped with livestreaming, through kslegislature.org

The committing has held hearings on multiple formulas. The goal is send one formula out of committee.

“I’m approaching this as serious as I possibly can,” Campbell said. “This is historic,” he said. The old formula, although often altered, was in place more than two decades before the block grants were installed about two years ago.

The new formula will need to have triggers for testing and audits, Campbell said, to demonstrate that it is leading to better student outcomes.

Who’s accountable?

The cycle of school districts suing the state over funding and courts ruling in schools’ favor began well before the 2010 Gannon lawsuit.

What’s different in this Supreme Court ruling, said Speaker Ryckman, is that the court linked the Legislature to student outcomes.

“That’s something new. We’re accountable for the achievement of those kids,” he said.

Ryckman predicted friction and pushback from local school districts and their elected boards as the Legislature is put in the position of accountability.

There could be “teeth” put in the formula to help improve results, Ryckman said.

The Supreme Court ordered the Legislature to come up with a new school finance formula, which will be subject to court review.

How do you test student outcomes under a new formula except after some period of time? Sen. Ty Masterson, R-Andover, asked.

Sen. Steve Fitzgerald, R-Leavenworth, spoke of the focus on funding going to schools and the outcome on student tests and graduation rates, but an absence of scrutiny about what happens in the classroom,

“What it looks like is a big black box,” Fitzgerald said, measuring what goes in and what goes out “but ignoring what goes on in the box.”

Rep. Les Osterman, R-Wichita, said he hadn’t heard anything about including parents in the mix of those being held responsible for the low scores. It’s a parent’s job to ensure children do homework.

“If they don’t do the homework, they ain’t going to pass the test,” Osterman said.

New committee

On March 9, Senate President Susan Wagle, R-Wcihita, announced a new Select Committee on Education Finance.

Appointed are: Senate Majority Leader Jim Denning, R-Overland Park, as chairman, and Sen. Carolyn McGinn, R-Sedgwick, as vice chairman, and Senate Minority Leader Anthony Hensley, D-Topeka, and Sens. Bud Estes, R-Dodge City; Barbara Bollier, R-Mission Hills; Daniel Goddard, R-Parsons; Dan Kerschen, R-Garden Plain; Pat Pettey, D-Kansas City; and Molly Baumgardner, R-Louisburg.

Hensley criticized Wagle for waiting so long. Aware the block grants were temporary, Hensley said he asked for interim study in mid-2015 on a new school finance formula, “because I thought we should have a head start.”

The Legislature has less than four months to develop a finance formula for 286 school districts. The Legislature’s regular session ends in early April and it has not finalized a budget recision bill for the current fiscal year or decided how to fix a revenue shortfall this year and for the next budget cycle that’s in the hundreds of millions.

“While some people may blame the court for that, we have ourselves to blame,” Hensley said of the pressure to address school finance.

Both the House and Senate effectively had most of Friday off. They opened sessions at 8 a.m. and closed soon afterward. Wagle said the schedule was not unusual.

The Legislature could hire an independent counsel to advise it as legislators craft a formula that must obtain court approval. The last time the Legislature was in this position, Ryckman said, it hired its own counsel.

Brownback

“The court has ruled and now we’re in the remedy phase,” Gov. Sam Brownback said March 7.

Legislation that would reduce funding to schools is not wise, he said.

“Even though they (court) don’t say it’s money – they’re measuring outcomes – the lawyers I’ve heard from say that’s not a smart move, it’s not a right thing to do,” he said.

“The system has not worked for the bottom 25 percent of students, according to the Kansas Supreme Court, and I think they’re right,” Brownback said.

“Now we’ve got to come up with different options,” he said.

Schools need to be graded, he said, and if they are under-performing, students need to have school choice.

“We have a limited number of dollars,” said House Minority Leader Jim Ward, D-Wichita, in response to the Governor’s position. The first responsibility is funding public schools, Ward said.

As for grading school districts and how their schools perform, voters do that when they elect their local school board members, Ward said.