TOPEKA — Legislators, educators and politicians are hitting the books to find new ways to pay for Kansas schools amid a backdrop of election-year politics.
Court battles over the past two decades have forced changes in how the state's 293 school districts are funded. This year, with voters poised to pick their next governor in November, there are a flurry of new ideas for how to keep the school system going at the same level despite dwindling state resources.
Rep. Clay Aurand, R-Courtland, chairman of the Select Committee on Education, says he doesn't think there will be wholesale changes. Still, with a new governor taking office in 2011, Aurand agrees it's a good time to put forward some new ideas, and he expects at least a few minor changes will gain traction next session.
"I think it has to be a multiyear process," Aurand said Wednesday. "We're more likely to tweak the formula that we have."
The committee heard two proposals this week. Both would make significant changes to public education.
One would shift the share of funding schools to local districts through property taxes. The plan is similar to one introduced by House GOP leaders during the 2010 session.
Rep. Arlen Siegfreid, R-Olathe, outlined proposals he's been working on for several months that would scrap the school finance formula and replace it with a simplified process. Base aid for students would be frozen at $4,012 per pupil, and districts would be awarded grants for other programs, such as those for students in academic difficulty.
Grants would be renewed based on student performance tied to the spending. The biggest change Siegfreid offers would allow local districts to have more authority to raise property taxes to fund the kind of education system they decide best.
"We must simplify and localize school funding," Siegfreid said. "If we can accomplish these two goals, we eliminate many of the issues plaguing our current finance formula."
The plan strikes similar tones to one offered by U.S. Sen. Sam Brownback, a Republican running for governor, who wants to give local districts more flexibility. His opponent, Democrat Tom Holland, would keep the current formula in place but agrees districts should have a little more ability to raise taxes to supplement education.
Democrats have criticized the Siegfreid and Brownback plans, saying they would harm property owners, small businesses and students by diminishing the quality of education statewide.
Another Republican plan was offered by Sen. Steve Abrams, a former State Board of Education member from Arkansas City. It would rethink how students are prepared for life after high school.
Still other options are being developed by a working group of superintendents and school board members.
Legislators have been put on notice that litigation is likely to be filed just weeks before the Nov. 2 elections. A coalition of districts known as Schools for Fair Funding filed a notice with the state this summer, and a 120-day waiting period ends in mid-October.
Attorneys for the coalition tried unsuccessfully to reopen the 2005 school finance ruling by the Kansas Supreme Court. They argue that the problems with education funding stem from the state's failure to comply with the ruling.
The new case will go before a three-judge panel, a process that could take two years or more to resolve.
Gov. Mark Parkinson made protecting K-12 funding a priority in the 2011 budget. During the session, he urged school districts to be patient, cautioning that a budget crisis isn't the time for suing the state for more money.
Parkinson doesn't see the ongoing discussion about the funding formula as wasted energy.
"Education funding is the most important obligation the state has as it is the engine of true economic development in Kansas," he said Wednesday. "It makes sense to regularly review the school finance formula, but we must avoid revisions that increase property taxes or provide inadequate funding for any part of the state.
"Every child in Kansas deserves a quality education."