Legislators should avoid the temptation to scrap
or radically alter the state’s current formula for aid
to local school districts. It has usually needed tinkering
from time to time to account for changes in
local economies, or enrollments, mother nature’s
indifference or other trials that may afflict certain
regions. But the basic formula, adopted in 1992, is
time-tested, an equitable and efficient plan. Its resurrection
last year was celebrated by nearly every
school administrator in Kansas, as though an old
and honorable friend had come home again.
But what had happened? Why had the old formula
Three years ago, in 2015, a legislature dominated
by fringe-right Brownback Republicans, insisted
that groveling would be part of their revised edition
of Kansas school finance. Funding would be
set in stand-alone block “grants” for each school
district. This limited schools to amounts budgeted
in prior years, ignoring the imponderables that
complicate budgets. School districts short-changed
by the system were allowed a hearing at Topeka in
which they could ask for more.
The begging was pre-ordained. At Gov.
Brownback’s direction, the legislature had slipped
between $50 million and $100 million in overall
cuts into the block-grant funding for local districts.
In early May, representatives of eight school districts
appeared before the State Finance Council,
a committee of high officials run by Brownback.
The districts sought extra funds for unanticipated
or unfunded expenses. Among them was
Concordia, forced to close early, and where several
staff members had donated portions of their salaries
to avoid layoffs.
It became clear immediately that this cut-acheck
financing (one size fits noone) ignored the
disparities, fluctuations, demographics, economies,
racial and cultural composites, and other
differences among school districts across Kansas.
It was evidence that the authors of this legislation
had little grasp of how schools operate or why.
As dozens more districts lined up to appeal for
increased aid, top Republican legislators abruptly
changed the rules, sending letters demanding that
school superintendents provide more information
to show how their districts “used efficiencies to
improve outcomes in the classroom.” They were
given less than two days.
This funding law, scripted by national conservative
cause lobbies, was part of a frontal assault
on education. It included raids on school pension
funds, demands for finger-printing and background
checks on teachers, heightened strictures
on speech and instruction – unprecedented, wholesale
derision as government policy.
This abasement was directed by legislators who
directed the state into a billion dollar budget shortfall.
It included Brownback and his lieutenant, Jeff
Colyer, who is now governor, and Ty Masterson,
then chairman of the Senate Ways and Means
Committee, and still a vocal critic of equitable aid
to schools. (Masterson gained his appointment as
a Senate budget expert not long after he declared
personal bankruptcy and left creditors hanging
with more than $1 million in debt.)
Block-grant funding for local schools was
quickly revealed to be a product of fabrication and
deceit, an invention as sound and immutable as
Kansas clouds on a wind-blown sky.
This brief Brownback-era disaster ignored critical
variances that bless or afflict communities,
such as local economies, enrollment flux, transportation
needs. At the same time state aid was
repeatedly slashed, throttling local schools. Base
state aid per pupil has dropped from $4400 in 2009
to barely $4000 today.
Last year, newly elected legislators joined a
coalition of Republicans and Democrats to restore
the state’s former finance formula – equitable,
efficient, time-tested, one that has survived even
the recent cruelties of legislative assault. but the
damage has been done. The Kansas Supreme
Court has ordered legislators to refuel funding for
This is no spending spree. It is a Kansas recovery,
a crucial step to offering a promise in education
to the next generations. It also marks another
lesson learned, one that we should hope never to
‒ JOHN MARSHALL