Every now and then, one of the great brains at Topeka trots out a plan to tighten the noose on local schools. Often it’s palmed off in the name of “efficiency” ‒ tightening the belt, eliminating waste, streamlining the system or, as the governor preaches from on high, “making sure the money is spent in the classroom.” (Whatever that means.)
These pronouncements usually come from someone who knows little, if anything, about local schools. For example, the many legislators who approved the governor’s block-grant disaster to reform school finance often said reform was necessary because the junked system was “difficult to understand.”
It was difficult because they had never bothered to read it.
The former system, enacted in 1992, remained quite workable with occasional updates, usually because of changes in local economies, population shifts, or state and federal mandates.
That’s it. Other legislators had understood it for more than 20 years, a system built on a few basic premises: that school funding is determined not by district wealth but by the number of students to be educated; that revenues came from a central pool, financed chiefly by a statewide, uniform school property tax and local levies, plus some sales and income tax revenues; district enrollments, (the number of students to be educated) were “weighted” by noting students with special needs ‒ physical or mental handicaps, long-distance transport, family poverty, lowenrollment schools, bilingual needs, and so forth). Legislators determined a cost per student to be educated, called “base state aid.” The base was multiplied by the number of students in a district to determine the district’s operating budget. Exceeding that budget by more than a certain percentage required a public referendum.
The old system worked, an agreeable coordination of state and local government.
A lot of work went into making this system, and it took a lot more to keep it going. It was once a national model for ensuring equitable and efficient local school finance. That has been replaced by a plan straight from a Dickens novel. A handful of Republicans gather in a Statehouse boiler room, throw darts at a wall board, and out comes a budget for every school district in Kansas. The state sends a check, called a block grant, and a school district must live on the amount for a year. Districts cut short end may send people to Topeka to grovel for more ‒ before a board composed of the very headmasters, including the governor, who set the allocations to begin with. (Good luck with that kangaroo court.)
What is it about local schools and local control that so frightens the right-wing fringe? That local voters might elect boards who understand their own schools’? That schools might produce young adults who can read and think for themselves? That they would instill a passion for learning, a way to see that the role of government is to improve people’s lives, that immigration built this country, that opportunity should be shared, that the civilized world needs more equitable human relations, that servitude is sinister and freedom is one of those things that is absolute or nothing?
Good schools open minds. Good schools threaten to educate, disrupt the indulgent pomposity of people blind in their own world. They threaten to present government as an agency for human welfare and not personal ambition. Good schools frighten legislators who seek to control education, not improve it, who fear that inquiring minds would counter the suffocating gospel and dissolve the fogbound absurdities that discredit their own bleak House.
‒ JOHN MARSHALL