In a preview of the next battle over school finance, Gov. Sam Brownback said Friday that he wants to tie schools’ money to students’ performance.
That concept immediately raised questions among advocates on both sides of the school finance debate.
Brownback’s luncheon speech to the Agri-Business Council of Wichita marked the first time he has publicly elaborated on what he wants to do with school finance since saying earlier this month that he wanted to ditch the current school-finance formula and funding the state’s districts with interim block grants for the next two years.
“Let’s spend that two years writing a finance formula that gets money to the classroom, and I’d like it to have some incentives tied with performance,” Brownback said Friday. “Are the kids reading at the fourth-grade level when they get to fourth grade? When you leave high school, are you either ready to go to college or go to work?
“I’d rather you’d be both, ready to do both, but are you? And we want to pay that you will be, and if you’re not, then you should be penalized for it because that’s what you’re supposed to get done.”
Against the backdrop of a recent court ruling that schools are unconstitutionally underfunded, Brownback criticized the current school funding formula. It was designed to provide educational equity across diverse populations by putting more money in schools that have high percentages of at-risk, poor, rural and other harder-to-serve students.
“It’s all based on number of pupils, and then if you move children long distances, if you’ve got a high-density school, if you’ve got a low-density school, if you’ve got a this, if you’ve got a that, you’ve got all these weightings that each child is worth then 1.2, 1.5 (times the regular base funding), but nothing that’s tied to performance,” Brownback said.
Senate Minority Leader Anthony Hensley, D-Topeka, said the governor’s comments “really didn’t make a whole lot of sense to me.”
Hensley said the current finance formula meets court muster for fairness, but the problem is the Legislature doesn’t fully fund it.
Both a three-judge school finance court and the state Supreme Court have emphasized that the constitution requires the state to provide funds to equalize educational opportunity for students in poorer school districts.
Hensley said rewarding high-performing school districts, which also tend to be the richer ones, would appear to do the opposite.
“I presume in Sam Brownback’s view of the world that’s the way it will be, but that will not meet with favor from the courts,” he said.
Rep. Jim Ward, D-Wichita, said performance is a “fuzzy word” that everyone supports, but it doesn’t really mean much in the context of school finance.
“Just saying base it (funding) on the tests seems a little simple-minded,” he said.
Wichita view: ‘It takes money’
Wichita school board member Lynn Rogers, the board’s point man on finance issues, said he agrees with Brownback’s goals of students meeting grade levels and leaving high school prepared for college or the workforce.
“But it takes money to do that,” Rogers said. “There’s scientific evidence that justifies the cost behind those weightings. It takes more money to educate the kids of poverty. It takes more money when you’re in a high-density poverty school, all those kinds of things.
“If we fund and we provide the services for kids of poverty, we get results,” he added. “It’s a new group of kids that come every year, so if you penalize based on last year’s kids, next year’s kids aren’t going to get the services they need to do well.”
He said he’s frustrated because most of the talk he’s heard from the governor and much of the Legislature has been little more than coded language for cutting schools.
“We don’t talk about how kids come to school and the support they have through their school, at home and in the community,” he said. “Teachers are expected to make miracles.”
He said he could support pay for performance only if it measured the progress of each year’s students from where they start at the beginning of the year to where they finish at the end of the year.
A student-focused approach?
Dave Trabert, president of the Kansas Policy Institute, said he also thinks performance evaluation should be tailored to individual districts and based on how much knowledge the students gain each year.
He fervently agrees with Brownback that the state needs a new formula for funding schools, but Trabert said he’d have misgivings about linking funding and student performance.
“If you’re going to get a reward for being so-called ‘successful,’ then there should be a consequence for not being successful, but it doesn’t have to be funding,” said Trabert, a member of a state commission on student achievement and school efficiency.
“I’d rather take a student-focused approach,” he said. “If we’re going to reward districts for doing what they’re supposed to do and making students achieve, then the consequence should be, in my mind, if districts aren’t performing, then the students should be allowed to go someplace else … or parents ought to be able to come in and do something about that school.”
Already some performance incentives
After his speech, Brownback said his administration has already moved toward linking funding to performance in some cases where the state provides extra money for special programs. He cited his fourth-grade reading initiative that has paid for special instruction programs in some districts to improve reading scores.
To get the extra money, participating schools were told “You’ve got to get these reading levels up, or if you don’t, we’ll be pulling funding,” Brownback said. “And that’s been working. They know what we want.”
Another Brownback initiative pays school districts to provide free technical-college classes for high school students, but also with a performance caveat: “We said provide the tech ed, and we want to see certifications in industry-recognized fields,” Brownback said.
Those programs involved money in addition to the basic state aid that all districts get. In a new finance formula, Brownback said, he’d like to see the same kind of performance requirements incorporated into general funding for schools.
“Those (reading and tech-ed programs) have been augmentations that we’ve done the last four years,” he said. “They aren’t considered in the school finance formula, but it is a track of what we’ve tried to do to put more funds in the education system.”
Reach Dion Lefler at 316-268-6527 or firstname.lastname@example.org.