State lawmakers are wise to be cautious and deliberative in evaluating Gov. Sam Brownback’s plan to overhaul the school-finance formula. They shouldn’t rush something so important – particularly when the reforms are based on false premises.
The lawmakers have been analyzing Brownback’s plan to allow school district voters to approve unlimited property-tax increases to bolster local education funding and to replace weightings that give additional funding to districts for at-risk students. The more the legislators look at the plan, the more concerns arise.
Two of Brownback’s main arguments for his reform are that the current funding system is too complicated and that the state needs to break the cycle of lawsuits over school funding.
But the current formula is complicated because education is complicated. And the governor’s plan to simplify the formula by eliminating targeted funding for at-risk students fails to recognize that some kids face bigger challenges and cost more to educate.
Nor would the governor’s plan end litigation. If anything, his reform would result in more lawsuits that the state likely would lose.
Under his plan, not only would school funding likely again be judged as inadequate, the local funding option likely would worsen funding inequalities between wealthy and poorer school districts. That’s what got the state in trouble with the courts in the 1990s.
Because of these concerns, Sen. Jean Schodorf, R-Wichita, chairwoman of the Senate Education Committee, said that her committee needs more time to study and review the plan.
“Anytime you have something as difficult as this, it takes a lot of discussion,” she said.
Some lawmakers, such as Sen. John Vratil, R-Leawood, wonder whether it would be better to hold off on the overhaul until next year. That’s also the recommendation of education groups such as the Kansas Association of School Boards.
Some lawmakers are still scrambling to try to save the reform. Sen. Susan Wagle, R-Wichita, proposed this week to add some funding to help districts that wouldn’t get more money under the governor’s plan.
But others note that many of these modifications make the Brownback proposal more like the current finance system – which, they argue, is a good, court-tested formula that simply needs to be fully funded.
“It just appears we’re spinning our wheels here trying to find all the ways out, minus a few, to get back to where we started,” said Sen. Allen Schmidt, D-Hays.
No formula is perfect, and lawmakers should look at possible improvements. But they shouldn’t make changes just for change’s sake. And they shouldn’t rush through ill-considered reforms just to meet some political goal of the governor.
For the editorial board, Phillip Brownlee