If Gov. Sam Brownback’s administration can hold school districts harmless while giving them more funding flexibility and also ending the cycle of school-finance litigation, it will deserve high praise. But can it? And is it fair to lock in funding after several years of cuts totaling $653 per pupil have forced districts to slash programs and teaching jobs? Wichita’s USD 259 and other urban districts have reason to be wary.
The proposal, unveiled at last week’s Kansas State Board of Education meeting and to kick in with the 2013-14 school year, would eliminate the special funding to target at-risk students and non-English speakers and instead use “equalization” funds to give special help to districts with low and high property values.
In the process, it seems to favor rural and Johnson County districts as it largely denies the realities that some kids cost far more to educate than others and that districts’ demographics change over time.
Because the formula would put no limits on districts’ ability to increase local property taxes, it also invites huge disparities in spending from one district to the next. That would seem to invite new lawsuits, even though the formula would increase the per-student funding to the $4,492 level anticipated by the legislation that ended the last school-finance battle in 2006.
Many small, rural districts would receive a bit more money under the Brownback formula, while Johnson County districts would have their long-sought green light to raise local property taxes.
Those changes are worrisome for Wichita. After successful bond-issue votes in 2000 and 2008, the school board would feel understandable pressure not to turn to local property owners for more money, despite having recently made huge program and job cuts to offset lost state funding. Though the majority of Wichita-area legislators may not be inclined to advocate for public education, they must stand up for USD 259 and not give the governor free rein to run unchecked.
As the proposal moves through the Legislature, district officials and parents need to make sure the unique challenges of the state’s largest school district are understood and taken into account.
If, as Brownback said again last week, he truly believes that education is the state’s “primary function” — as important to state government as defense is to the federal government — he will ensure that his school-finance formula leaves no district behind.