A proposed new Kansas school funding formula would allow parents to use tax funds for private schools, and it would prohibit school districts from spending state aid money on extracurricular activities.
Those are two of the potentially volatile features in a school financing bill filed just before lawmakers left the Capitol for a monthlong recess. The new bill is just now being analyzed.
A new school finance formula would replace the state’s block grant funding system currently in place through next school year. The new formula would take effect July 1, 2017.
Under the bill, parents could use 70 percent of the per-pupil state aid that would have gone to their local school district to instead pay for private schools, including religious schools or home schools. Such accounts would be administered by the state treasurer.
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Eligible students would be those who have been enrolled in public schools or haven’t started school.
Rep. Ron Highland, a Wamego Republican and chairman of the House Education Committee, said the education spending accounts would give parents choices.
“It’s taxpayers’ money, and they should have a say in how it’s spent,” he said.
Mark Tallman with the Kansas Association of School Boards said that besides spending state tax money on private education, which the group opposes, the concept lacks accountability.
“This is a plan that would basically transfer public funding with no academic accountability or financial accountability whatsoever,” Tallman said.
Highland said House Bill 2741 determines state aid for districts on a per-pupil basis and figures base aid per pupil by the size of the district. Districts with smaller enrollments are generally more costly to operate, he said.
For instance, aid linked to enrollment would be $8,490 per student for districts with fewer than 400 students and $5,763 per student for districts with 2,000 or more students.
State aid to districts also would take into account the number of low-income students in districts and the need for bilingual services. Highland said the bill is backed by educational data collected by the Legislature’s special K-12 school study committee, which he chaired.
During the 2015 legislative session, lawmakers repealed the state’s per-pupil financing formula and replaced it with block grants for two years, through the 2016-17 school year, to give lawmakers time to enact a new school financing plan.
In the days before they left on break, lawmakers were rushing to approve an “equalization” plan for the current block grant funding system. Lawmakers hope it will satisfy a February court decision about the fair distribution of state school funds.
Lawmakers reconvene April 27 to complete the 2016 session. Highland said he expected the proposal for a new school finance formula would be discussed.
“The bill has been put out there for everyone to look at and digest,” he said.
Tallman said there are deep concerns that the new proposal would cut support for students who are in poverty and who are English-language learners.
It would also prohibit spending state aid for extracurricular activities and food service programs, which would “tremendously disequalize” educational opportunities and services between wealthier and poorer districts, he said.
“Nutrition and simply not being hungry has an impact on learning,” Tallman said.
Rep. Melissa Rooker, a Fairway Republican, said the bill “packs a number of policy changes into what is purported to be a finance plan.”
She said the provision that allows parents to use taxpayer money could violate the state constitution. The money would go to accounts used by parents and supervised by the state treasurer, not the Education Department.
“I think that entire section has no place in a funding formula,” she said.
Restricting funding for extracurricular activities, food service and administration costs are other big concerns with the bill, she said. And some definitions seem unclear, she said. She asked whether band, which includes both classes and outside activities, is considered extracurricular.
Highland said the bill incorporates recommendations from the state’s efficiency consultants.
“Through the years, administrative costs have skyrocketed,” he said. “We’re trying to look at ways to cut those costs and get the money into the classroom.”
Tallman said the bill is wide-ranging, delving into such matters as requiring high-deductible health insurance plans for school district employees.
“This is a very complicated bill, and we are working our way through the details,” Tallman said.
Lawmakers before the recess approved a plan to fix the “equalization” portion of the state’s current funding system. The state Supreme Court ruled that Kansas public schools could not open for the 2016-17 school year unless a remedy was in place by June 30 to fairly distribute state aid among wealthier and poorer districts.
The Legislature passed the equalization bill March 24. If Gov. Sam Brownback signs it or allows it to become law without his signature, the court will review the legislation.