Editorials

Finance bill could weaken public schools

A school finance proposal would redirect tax dollars from public schools to private, religious and home schools – and with none of the accountability demanded of school districts.
A school finance proposal would redirect tax dollars from public schools to private, religious and home schools – and with none of the accountability demanded of school districts.

Thirteen months after the Legislature scrapped the 23-year-old school finance formula in favor of two years of block grants, it’s encouraging to see a potential replacement in bill form.

But the proposal introduced just before state lawmakers’ spring break stirs worry, including over state leaders’ apparent interest in redirecting tax dollars from public schools to private, religious and home schools – and with none of the accountability demanded of school districts.

Under the voucher provision in House Bill 2741, the state treasurer would administer “education freedom” accounts for parents who want to use 70 percent of the per-pupil state aid amount to pay for a non-public school, including home school. The eligible children would be those who’ve been in public schools or who have yet to start school. They would not be required to take state assessment tests or meet other academic measures.

Testing and fiscal accountability requirements should not be waived for non-public schools that are receiving public funds, especially by a Legislature so eager to dictate to districts and teachers about everything from overall curriculum to individual books and posters.

The 95-page bill also raises many questions about the equity and adequacy of state funding for districts. Elements in the formula would factor in extra costs of teaching low-income students and non-English speakers, as well as those faced by the smallest districts. And there is new authority for districts to raise taxes locally.

But what would be the impact of the confusing prohibition of the use of state aid for anything but “education services,” requiring districts to find other ways to cover extracurricular activities, food service and more? The bill also calls for a uniform, high-deductible health plan for school employees; targets districts’ cash balances; and includes language meant to make future legal challenges to state school funding more difficult.

After several years of K-12 bills being handled only by the Legislature’s money committees, this one at least bears the fingerprints of Senate Education Committee Chairman Steve Abrams, R-Arkansas City, and House Education Committee Chairman Rep. Ron Highland, R-Wamego. And it makes a worthy starting point for the Statehouse’s great school finance debate, which also will be shaped by the Kansas Supreme Court’s pending rulings.

But if “we Kansans love our schools and they are great schools,” as Gov. Sam Brownback has said, why would state leaders adopt a new finance formula that could weaken those schools by subsidizing private education?

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