Gov. Sam Brownback’s plan to “block grant” school funding both ignores the courts and puts fewer dollars into the classroom.
It’s not “a time-out in the school finance wars,” as Brownback claimed. It’s more like a diversionary tactic.
Brownback announced during his State of the State address that he wanted the Legislature to repeal the current school-finance formula and spend the next two years developing a new formula. In the meantime, he wants the state to fund schools using block grants based on current funding levels.
But it turns out – surprise, surprise – that school districts wouldn’t get the same funding. Next fiscal year they would receive $127.4 million less in operational and capital-outlay funding than they currently receive, according to the governor’s budget.
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Instead of putting more money in the classroom, as Brownback said he wanted, he is using part of the operational funding to pay for the state’s increased pension payments.
It’s also unclear how block grants would affect local option budgets, which are local supplemental aid for schools. Would that go up, down or be capped?
Even if operational funding were flat, school districts would still face spending cuts because of annual cost increases. Also, schools apparently won’t get additional funding for growing enrollments or changing demographics, such as more low-income students.
Valley Center superintendent Cory Gibson wrote in a blog post that, counting enrollment weightings for at-risk students and other adjustments, his district has increased an average of 101 full-time equivalent students per year since 2010. So flat funding could mean that Valley Center would receive nearly $390,000 less next school year than it would have under the current formula and about $780,000 less the year after that, for a total two-year funding loss of nearly $1.2 million.
“I contend that the formula is not broken,” he wrote. “However, what is broken is the priority by legislators to fund it.”
Reduced or even flat funding flouts the ruling last month by a three-judge District Court panel that the state is inadequately funding K-12 education, as required by the Kansas Constitution. The judges said the state likely needs to increase annual school funding by more than $550 million.
Some lawmakers and school-funding experts speculate that Brownback’s real purpose in repealing the formula is to try to stall a Kansas Supreme Court ruling against the state.
“This has been tried in any number of states,” Bruce Baker, a school-finance professor at Rutgers University, told the Topeka Capital-Journal. “Call it a different formula. Call it something structurally completely different, even if it’s not. Give it a new name.”
The aim is to argue that the school-funding lawsuit was based on a formula that no longer exists. Therefore, school districts would need to start over with a new lawsuit in a lower court – which could take several more years.
The Kansas Supreme Court is unlikely to be snookered by such a legal maneuver, just as the the District Court panel rejected an attempt by lawmakers to count local school funding as state aid. But the move might buy Brownback and the Legislature a little more time to avoid their constitutional duty.
For the editorial board, Phillip Brownlee