Rather than keep it simple in responding to the Kansas Supreme Court’s school-finance ruling, the Legislature seems intent on making matters worse for many districts. Kansans have to hope that as the favored bills go to the full House and Senate on Thursday, reason and fairness will prevail.
Both have been scarce so far.
The justices ordered the state on March 7 to correct unconstitutional funding inequities among rich and poor public school districts by July 1. That seemed doable: State reserves contain the $129 million needed for the fix, and Democrats including House Minority Leader Paul Davis of Lawrence have pushed for a clean bill targeting the capital outlay and local option budget funding the court had judged inequitable. Lessening the fiscal impact might necessitate forgoing Gov. Sam Brownback’s laudable plan to fund all-day kindergarten.
Yet as the GOP House and Senate plans emerged and passed through each chamber’s budget committee this week, the disappointing reality became clear: Republican lawmakers prefer to try to move education money around and tie it to controversial policy reforms.
The Senate proposal includes a voucherlike tax benefit for property-owning families using private or home schools. The House version expands the number of “innovative districts” exempted from most regulations (though the constitutionality of that new state program remains in doubt).
The bills variously cut funding to virtual schools, reduce at-risk funding and make changes in teacher licensing. While increasing the amount of property taxes that districts could raise locally (with a public vote), bills also tap other funding sources, including school transportation, the state’s problem gambling fund, and a federal tax refund sought by the University of Kansas to help pay for a new medical education building.
It could have been worse. The rejected ideas included expanding the number of unaccountable charter schools, sweeping local districts’ reserves, blocking implementation of the Common Core education standards, and giving businesses a tax break for donating to private school scholarships.
But as Mike Mathes, superinten-dent of Topeka’s Seaman school district, tweeted Tuesday: “School finance is a mess. Some school administrators have left the Statehouse with glazed eyes and a sense of disbelief.”
Details have been foggy on many of the proposals, including their fiscal impact to the state. Sen. Laura Kelly, D-Topeka, expressed the well-founded doubt that the “accounting tricks” would pass court muster: “I think we are moving it from Peter’s pot to put in Paul’s pot.”
As it is, the Legislature’s chosen remedy on school inequity could end up harming districts and provoking the court.