Few can argue with most of the goals in the “Road Map for Kansas” that GOP gubernatorial candidate Sam Brownback has been rolling out in recent weeks. After all, who doesn’t want incomes to rise and the number of children living in poverty to decline?
But Brownback has presented one goal — albeit without any specifics — that will be controversial and deserves attention this election campaign: changing the state’s school finance formula.
Brownback has mostly made broad statements about his intentions, such as how he wants to “reform the school finance formula and break the cycle of litigation” — referring to the school funding lawsuits that the state tends to lose and then renege on. But he has dropped a few hints about what the reform might include.
For example, Brownback supports letting local voters decide whether to spend more of their own tax money on education. “We need to ensure we are not supporting policies that strangle a local community’s ability to support their education goals,” he said.
That plays well in Johnson County, which has the resources and desire to spend much more on its schools. But it could lead to the funding inequities between wealthy and poorer districts that led to earlier court intervention.
“He’s suggested we go back to the finance formula from the 1990s, which included significantly higher property taxes and guaranteed litigation,” said Tom Holland, Brownback’s Democratic challenger.
What Brownback will quickly learn, if he doesn’t know already, is that reforming the finance formula is much easier said than done — particularly if the goal is to lower costs.
The Legislature’s 2010 Commission spent five years considering various reforms. In the end, its report last January reached the same conclusion as other Legislature-authorized studies and audits and a Kansas Supreme Court ruling: The state is underfunding K-12 education.
Some have called for defining what exactly is a “suitable” education, as required by the state’s constitution. But efforts to dumb down that definition in order to save money tend to be contrary to the standards and mandates imposed by the state and federal governments, such as the No Child Left Behind law.
There is also the politics of trying to change the formula. Lawmakers tend to be more parochial than ideological when it comes to school funding, so they typically won’t vote for a funding change that hurts their local school districts. That’s why most finance changes over the years have had to “raise all boats” in order to get enough votes to pass.
There are also rural and urban divides that are difficult to overcome.
But Brownback’s interest in changing the formula appears to have already spurred some activity in Topeka. The Legislative Educational Planning Committee is scheduled this week to hear about a reform plan being developed by state Sen. Steve Abrams, R-Arkansas City. A newly formed school finance task force is meeting next month.
But so far, because there aren’t any specifics yet, lawmakers — and the public — are mostly scratching their heads wondering what Brownback wants to do.
“I’m waiting,” said Sen. Jean Schodorf, R-Wichita, chairwoman of the Senate Education Committee. “I hope it’s good.”