School finance: A troubled and complicated history

0
514

(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

for lawmakers.

*

*

*

*

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

finance formula.

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)

LEAVE A REPLY

Please enter your comment!
Please enter your name here