(First of three articles)
The governor and allies in the Legislature seem to be
flush with loose talk about re-writing the state’s local
school finance formula. Others, new to the Capitol, nod
heads, mutter the usual platitudes about special commit-
tees, study sessions, and comprehensive reforms in place
in, oh, a year or two.
Flat-line school funding? Get rid of the school finance
formula? Send block grants to school districts for the same
amount spent this year, but make them pay at least part of
their employees’ pensions?
Not that this is a bad idea – and it is – but quick reform
is a fool’s vision.
Forget about any speedy and lasting revisions, at least
ones that will work. The school finance law is among the
state’s most complicated sections of statute, and for good
reason. Its history is entwined with regional feuding passed
down from the generations; it reverberates from the cease-
less hammering of powerful special interests and countless
cause lobbies; it glows white from the heat of battles among
local patrons, legislators and lobbyists. It is loaded with all
the seething complexities that history and economics and
politics can contrive and combine, a formula that has led
to one secession movement (1992) and left more than one
legislative session limp and exhausted. It is of a language
and background that only a handful of people in this state
truly and confidently understand. It is a formula of futility
for those who have dismissed it without understanding it.
For them it is a matted thicket of contingencies, Lucifer’s
map to the jungle from hell.
And yet on the surface and in its purest, original form,
this school funding formula makes more sense and pro-
scribes greater equity than any other that has become law.
This topic engages at once all that is sacred to anyone
with a heart or a conscience – education for children, the
expectations of families and the economies of their com-
Those who take it lightly, as though it were this year’s
legislative talking point, or common fodder for ward heel-
ers and mid-rent influence peddlers, risk the fool’s errand,
a trip to oblivion.
A LOOK at even the briefest history of local education
finance will tell us that the governor’s recent demagogic
cry for reform is pure hokum. This issue is no simple mat-
ter to cancel a law, cut a check, and buy time, a year, to
write new statutes favoring the convenience of highbrow
Let’s begin with local schools in the late 1950s and early
60s. At the time there were roughly 2,800 school districts
in Kansas, many of them in rural regions with only one or
two-room schools; just 238 districts offered the full K-12
grades. And in many districts with the full grade span,
students were completing requirements for a high school
degree by the end of their sophomore year. This was educa-
tion left purely to the locals.
Alarmed, state lawmakers began several years of study,
work that led to the state’s first school unification law in
1963. Counties were authorized to form one or more school
districts per county, each with 200 or more square miles of
territory and at least $2 million in property valuation.
Voters approved a new plan creating 311 unified school
districts and replacing the state superintendent of educa-
tion; an elected 10-member State Board of Education hired
a Commissioner of Education.
IN LESS than a decade the Kansas Supreme Court was
involved again; disparities among schools in poor and
wealthy regions had become too great; among regions,
property values and personal incomes – chief components
in school district wealth – had become so divergent that in
this context they were unconstitutional.
Legislators and the governor created the (1973) School
District Equalization Act. A plan for significant state aid
to needy districts was born, with a “formula” to determine
allocations for each school district. Property values domi-
nated this formula. For more than a decade it worked, well
enough that school finance was rarely a contentious issue
But with education law in Kansas, the urge to tinker
begins even before the ink has dried on the original.
Although the law directed more aid to the neediest dis-
tricts, guidelines to define such “needs” were unclear. The
tinkering began. Some students required special atten-
tion; poverty, mental and physical handicaps, and long
commutes were serious, expensive challenges. Economic
growth in some regions, decline in others added to fac-
tors affecting districts’ wealth. The gaps between poor
and wealthy districts widened. By the mid-1980s, school
finance, and its increasing costs had moved nearly to the
top of the legislative calendar.
INCENTIVE FOR reform in the 1990s was incubated in
1986, when Congress approved federal income tax reforms
and Kansans approved constitutional amendments that
affected state taxation.
Congress then added federal tax cuts. In 1989, statewide
property reappraisal (ordered by a 1986 amendment) began
to take effect. These reforms were bound to collide, and
they would force dramatic change in the state’s school
finance law, once a national model.
Here’s why: For nearly two decades, beginning in 1973,
the wealth of a school district determined its allotment of
state aid. The formula for wealth was composed of proper-
ty values plus 24 percent of taxable income. Districts high
in wealth per pupil received less aid than poorer districts.
On a state average, property values comprised about 75
percent of district wealth, and taxable income, 25 percent.
Suddenly, federal tax cuts had exposed more Kansas
income to state taxation. Property reappraisal (1989)
skewed the traditional formula even further. Statewide,
taxable income was suddenly an average 56 percent of
school district wealth (not 25 percent) and property values,
44 percent (not 75).
Without revision, the finance formula would penalize
scores of communities placed almost overnight among the
ranks of high-income school districts; they faced dramatic
losses in state aid and soaring property tax bills.
By late 1989, angry protests against looming tax increas-
es swept across the state. Gov. Mike Hayden called a
special two-day session of the Legislature to deal with the
issue. It adjourned in frustration.
In 1990 and 1991, the Legislature and Gov. Joan Finney
failed to agree on funding enough to repair the education
IN THE summer of 1991, dozens of school districts sued
the state, claiming the law no longer provided equitable
financing or education opportunities in Kansas school
districts. Wide disparities in regional wealth could no lon-
ger be bridged with infusions of state aid, then an amount
approaching $900 million and rising. (It’s now $3.3 bil-
lion.) As a result, the districts claimed, students, taxpayers,
and school districts were constitutionally disadvantaged.
The issue went to Shawnee County District Judge Terry
Bullock, an eloquent and imposing legal scholar with a
reputation for reason and sharpness. The judge noted that
huge disparities in regional wealth, combined with funding
law at that time, violated a constitutional guarantee that the
quality of education in a school district should not depend
on the wealth of that district.
Because education is a state responsibility, Bullock said,
regional wealth must be apportioned, or shared, more
equitably. He invited the Legislature and Gov. Finney to
modify the law, and suspended the lawsuits pending delib-
erations in the coming 1992 legislative session.
By mid-May 1992, after months of grinding debate, the
Legislature and governor approved historic reforms. Key
components of the legislation included a statewide, uni-
form property tax for schools and a central pool for distri-
bution of revenues; it set local spending limits with some
variation for exceptional costs (local option budgets).
The law also ordered that funding be tied to the number
of students to be educated, not district wealth; it added
sales and income tax revenues to the funding pool; at the
same time, it enacted new standards by which schools were
to be measured for student achievement.
– JOHN MARSHALL
(Next: A good law wrecked)