December 14, 2011

Brownback’s plan changes how schools are funded

Gov. Sam Brownback’s school finance proposal would set Wichita’s future funding at the current amount after years of cuts, according to figures released by the administration Wednesday.

Gov. Sam Brownback’s school finance proposal would set Wichita’s future funding at the current amount after years of cuts, according to figures released by the administration Wednesday.

Starting in 2013, the plan would eliminate formulas that channel extra money to districts based on their number of at-risk students. Instead, the state would give equalization payments intended to make sure kids in poor districts have a fair shot at a good education.

The administration says replacing that part of the formula would give local school boards more freedom to spend as they see fit.

But some worry funding based on the number of students and property valuations could become problematic as costs for water, electricity and other utilities increase and demographics shift.

“The cost of doing business goes up over time,” said Diane Gjerstad, a lobbyist for the Wichita district. “And it’s compounded when you have students who have historically underperformed.”

Wichita would receive the same amount in 2013-14 that it did this year — $360,694,097. The amount could increase after that if the number of students increases. It could drop if the number of students decreases.

The plan would let school boards take unlimited property tax increase proposals to district voters, a move some say could create major disparities in education quality and others say provides unnecessary latitude to increase already high property tax rates.

The plan was presented Wednesday by Brownback policy director Landon Fulmer to the state board of education after a statewide tour where he and others shared ideas they were considering. The administration nixed several ideas that received consistent criticism, including one that would have let counties increase sales taxes to boost school funding.

The current school funding formula was enacted in 1992 and revised in 2005 and 2006 after the state Supreme Court ruled school funding was inadequate.

Brownback, a Republican, said in a statement that his proposal would make the state’s school finance formula more transparent, focus more dollars in classrooms and end a “cycle of litigation” over how more than $3 billion in education funds are distributed. His administration also believes it will help with goals to increase fourth-graders’ scores on standardized reading tests and to see that more high school graduates are ready for work or college.

“Education is to the state government what defense is to the federal government: its primary function and the lion’s share of its budget,” he said in the statement. “It’s time for the state to fix its broken funding formula.”

How it works

Under the proposed formula, per-pupil state aid would remain at $3,780 until the 2013-14 school year. That would require an additional $24 million next year and $21 million in 2012-13.

Then per-pupil funding would increase to the amount currently required by statute, $4,492. The administration hopes that will end the cycle of lawsuits filed by school districts and students who say the legislature’s under-funding of education defies the state constitution. It would cost an additional $45 million in state general funds to provide the $4,492 base pay per student.

Under the proposed formula, the per-student amount is multiplied by the number of full-time students, including all kindergartners. It also requires that 20 mills, or roughly $538 million, in state property taxes that currently stay in districts funnel instead into an “equalization” fund that helps school districts with depressed property values.

Districts that generate more than 106 percent of the amount they receive now — dubbed the baseline — would send excess money to a “supplemental equalization fund.”

Districts that can’t generate the amount they receive now through the per-pupil formula, equalization money and local taxes would get money from that fund. The legislature could add more money to that fund.

Estimates presented by the administration show all districts would have at least the same amount they got this year under the current formula. Many districts — mostly smaller, rural ones — would receive a bit more.

The plan would continue the state’s commitment to pay 25 percent of bond payments for districts, such as Wichita, that have already approved bond issues for new facilities and improvements. But it would discontinue that match for future bond issues.

Debate takes shape

Schools won’t be required to spend specific amounts on at-risk students and those who don’t speak English well. But Fulmer said federal regulations and other education benchmarks will ensure those students have a proper education.

“I don’t believe that school districts will say ‘you know, we’re just not going to do at-risk or bilingual anymore,” he said.

Fulmer said he expects to discuss ways to ensure at-risk students receive sufficient funding with the department of education as they discuss the equalization funds.

“We believe there are going to be sufficient amounts of money spent on at-risk,” he said. “I don’t think that this is going to change that. I think, though, that this allows districts to have a more districtwide approach to at-risk than what we have right now, which is really student-by-student.”

It all goes back to how much money the state has, he said. If the state had to put a billion dollars more — an amount Fulmer said could result from an unfavorable court decision — into the system, it would equate to a more than 2 percent increase in income taxes.

“We have what we have. We want to try to distribute it in the fairest and most equitable way,” he said.

John Robb, a Newton-based lawyer who represents plaintiff school districts, called the proposal “smoke and mirrors” that will almost certainly trigger more lawsuits. The issue isn’t the formula, he said, it’s that the legislature failed to fully fund it.

The state allocated $3,863 per student in 2004-05, before the court decision. It increased funding to $4,433 per student before scaling back to the current $3,780 per student.

Over time, Robb said the proposal would create more disparities across the state because some districts may approve property tax increases to bolster their systems while other districts may not and may also see demographic shifts that require more resources.

“In medicine, they say first do no harm,” he said. “Well, this does harm to Kansas kids.”

Dave Trabert, president of the Kansas Policy Institute, a low-tax, small-government think tank, said the proposal focuses on spending but not on student achievement.

“In a word, I would give it an incomplete,” he said.

Trabert says the institute’s research shows other states that spend less produce better test scores in several categories and demographics.

“Funding does not drive achievement,” he said. “And that’s good news because we don’t have the billions of dollars more to put into education.”

Trabert said comparing outcomes district-to-district isn’t an accurate way to gauge the relationship between spending and achievement.

In 2006, a cost analysis issued by the Legislative Division of Post Audit found a “strong association” between district spending and outcomes.

“…all other things being equal, districts that spent more had better student performance,” the report said.

Districts weigh in

Don Adkisson, director of finance for the Derby school district, said the proposal appears to simplify the funding formula but doesn’t restore funding cuts from recent years that led to teaching and administrative job losses. Derby is projected to receive the same amount — $41,134,17— in 2013-14 that it did this year.

Justin Henry, superintendent of the Goddard school district, said his district is among the fastest-growing in the state. He said not having state aid for future bond issues is a concern. It is projected to receive the same amount it has this year.

Andover Superintendent Mark Evans called the proposal “semi-good news” since it doesn’t cut funding. But that’s tempered by the fact that the district is already at a lower funding level, having lost $4.5 million in state funding in the past five years.

But there are concerns, Evans said, including that only smaller districts get additional funds, that there is no compensation for an increase in the at-risk population and that districts wouldn’t get state aid to help meet the cost of future school bond issues.

Mark Tallman, a lobbyist for the Kansas Association of School Boards, said he appreciates that the administration has responded to some concerns. But he said he’s still concerned about the level of funding and the proposal’s flexibility in dealing with demographic changes over time.

“Many of these are, of course, legislative policy decisions,” he said.

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