The latest school finance plan from Kansas lawmakers would boost state funding by more than $75 million next year and increase aid to Wichita Public Schools.
The amount is far short of the roughly $500 million to $800 million in new spending some had predicted would be needed for the state to comply with a Kansas Supreme Court order to put an adequate funding system in place by June 30.
Wichita, the state’s largest district, would gain about $8.5 million in general state aid under the plan, according to projections the Kansas State Department of Education released Wednesday.
The district is receiving about $282 million in general state aid this school year under the block grant system. But under the proposed legislation, that figure would rise to more than $290 million.
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Gov. Sam Brownback welcomed the proposal. He said he has been meeting regularly with lawmakers involved in crafting education policy.
“I’m delighted to see it out there. I think we need to get those discussions moving forward,” Brownback said.
An attorney representing a coalition of school districts that have sued the state for additional funding took a darker view, however.
“It’s really throwing a glass of water on a prairie fire,” Alan Rupe said.
Diane Gjerstad, a lobbyist for the Wichita school district, said $75 million was on “the low end.”
But the bill is early in the process.
“It’s like the first inning of the game. We’ve got the game organized, we’ve got the ball out there, and now we’re going to start working the bill,” Gjerstad said.
Hoping for a Ferrari
The bill, which took shape in the past week during meetings of the House K-12 education committee, is scheduled for two days of hearings on Thursday and Friday.
Rep. Larry Campbell, R-Olathe, who leads the committee, said the bill is “only a starting point.”
“The old formula was a vehicle that got us from here to there,” Campbell said. “As we started looking at the new formula, we went ‘OK, this new vehicle’s got to have tires. It’s gotta have wheels, it’s gotta have a steering wheel.’ ... Next thing you know, it’s very much similar.”
Campbell said the new bill shares many pieces from the old formula. Lawmakers threw out the old formula in 2015 and replaced it with a block grant system that essentially froze funding.
“I’m hoping we went from a VW to, you know, a Ferrari, hopefully,” Campbell said. “It is similar.”
Early criticism of the bill took aim at its complexity.
“One of the primary criticisms before was that it was a very complicated formula,” said Rep. Nancy Lusk, D-Overland Park. “This is definitely more complicated.”
More than 100 school districts would lose funding under the bill, primarily due to declining enrollment, according to the state department of education.
“(We’ll) wait and see,” Lusk said. “But when you have that many districts losing, it may be dead on arrival.”
Rep. Clay Aurand, R-Belleville, who is on the K-12 committee, described the bill as getting “the pieces” into the right place.
“I don’t think anybody should get hung up on the dollar amount at this point until we know what’s available,” he said, adding that lawmakers were in “limbo” as they continue to look at raising taxes.
Responding to the court
In its ruling, the Kansas Supreme Court cited concerns that the state was failing to provide roughly one-fourth of its public school students with basic math and reading skills.
Brownback said Kansas must better serve the bottom 25 percent of students.
“We’ve got to do that,” Brownback said.
All-day kindergarten would become fully funded within three years under the proposal, Campbell said, and money has been targeted to help children falling behind.
“We’ve got to start earlier and close the gap for those at the end that are maybe falling out,” Campbell said. “It’s a whole complicated system.”
Mark Tallman, a lobbyist with the Kansas Association of School Boards, said the funding levels in the bill are much lower than what the organization believes is necessary.
But Tallman said the bill does contain several elements that are needed in a new formula – such as a base state aid amount per pupil.
“I think we are at least cautiously optimistic this is set out as a baseline,” Tallman said.
Sedgwick County districts
Most Sedgwick County districts would receive more general state aid under the plan.
▪ Derby would increase by about $345,000.
▪ Haysville would increase by about $1.27 million.
▪ Valley Center would increase by nearly $857,000.
▪ Mulvane would increase by about $87,000.
▪ Clearwater would increase by about $255,000.
▪ Goddard would increase by about $2.1 million.
▪ Maize would increase by $1.2 million.
Only Cheney and Renwick would see decreases. Cheney’s aid would go down by about $56,800. Renwick’s aid would drop about $364,000.
In northeast Kansas, all six Johnson County school districts and almost every school district in Wyandotte County would receive more money under the plan.
The Kansas City, Kan., school district would see state funding rise by more than $4.9 million.