School finance is Kansas’ can in the road, and the legislature has been kicking it along for at least a decade. The courts have said repeatedly that this evasion, this hedging and shilly-shallying, must end. Three years ago, Gov. Sam Brownback quickly obliged. He tossed the can in a ditch – a deep one.
Brownback faced the double-whammy of a $750 million state budget deficit plus another $500 million, court-suggested invoice to resolve school funding disparities at that time. He proposed to toss it all and start with a new, two-year budget that abolished the school finance act and froze state aid to local schools at reduced rates.
The Republican-dominant legislature agreed, although few if any had bothered to study the school finance formula Brownback rejected, or learn why it had worked well for more than 20 years. In place of that formula, school districts were to have block grants in amounts equal to their “current” spending – although districts were ordered to pay a portion of employees’ pensions, an added expense that, statewide, came to hundreds of millions of dollars.
The new legislation flew in the face of litigation over the legislature’s tight-fisted funding for schools (or lack of it); it ignored court rulings that respected the standing of current law over its repeal for a substitute plan that had not been written. (And still hasn’t.)
In December 2014, a three-judge district court panel ruled that disparities between rich and poor districts had again become too wide and that the state’s public schools were constitutionally underfunded; the panel suggested (without ordering) that state aid to schools be at least $548 million more than current levels. Attorney General Derek Schmidt appealed to the Supreme Court. The governor wanted to forget it and start over.
It’s been more than ten years since legislators increased school aid significantly, and that came after yet another court action. In May 2006, the Legislature approved a three-year, $541 million package of state aid increases for local funding.
None of the disparities or inequities have since narrowed, much less been eliminated.
The governor has continued to insist that the Kansas income tax be phased out. The Legislature approved incremental reductions that especially favored certain businesses and the high brackets. Little real thought was given to the effect of dramatic revenue losses, other than a vague, blind faith that our economy would be “stimulated,” new business would flock to the state, new jobs would employ tens of thousands, and a new prosperity would somehow outrun that old bugaboo, reality.
Instead, the legislature has confronted chronic budget deficits, even with dramatic cuts in per-pupil state aid. Since 2009, that base aid was cut 13 percent ($581 per pupil), from $4,433 to $3,852.
Closer to home: In recent years in McPherson County, the five school districts have reported an average combined enrollment of about 4,350. The districts’ combined operating budgets have been about $42 million.
Of that, 74 percent – $31 million – has been state aid. Only 26 percent ($10.8 million) is raised solely through local option property taxes.
Thus, local schools need state aid. This is roughly the picture for most school districts in Kansas. With the former plan of sharing wealth statewide, a uniform property tax funded a central pool ($3.3 billion), supported with further revenue; base per-pupil aid was decided and allocated to schools according to enrollment. Local budgets are enhanced through additional local option taxes that raised $2.2 billion statewide. Federal aid, mostly for school breakfasts and lunches, is $486 million.
The governor and allies believed replacing the formula with restrictive block grants – and insisting districts pay a portion of teacher pensions – would encourage local thrift.
But they had ignored a footing of the abolished formula: shared wealth and shared state aid kept local taxes at an affordable rate. Sending a check for part of the bill while ignoring the total was an invitation to chaos.
The governor’s hints at mergers, at cutting administration or faculty, consolidating payroll accounting, information technology and transportation, all went weak in the face of reality.
Year two would see enrollments change, and with them the number of special needs students. As metropolitan districts grow, and rural schools are more isolated, transportation becomes a greater problem. So do free and reduced price meals.
What of vocational education, the needs of “at-risk” students?
What replaces local option budgets, a $2.2 billion item statewide?
Where do we put bond and interest payments, capital expenditures? What about districts with federal property off the tax rolls?
Meanwhile, the state’s budget deficit approaches $1 billion.
The Kansas Supreme Court soon may suggest a new cost for the equitable and constitutional funding of local schools.
Dramatic change in education funding was crucial to the plan for a state with no income tax. So far, that plan has brought a government without an income and a state without much left of its schools.