Tempting as it may be to Lawrence residents, Gov. Joan Finney's 45-mill statewide property tax levy to fund elementary and secondary schools has drawbacks.
The 45-mill figure quickly catches the attention of local residents, who currently are paying 68.5 mills to finance the Lawrence district's general fund and a total of 77 mills to finance the entire district budget. That means local taxpayers would stand to save in the neighborhood of 20 mills a year. The only problem is what they would lose in the process.
Primarily, they would lose local control. Any plans the local district made to pay its teachers more or add classes at the high school or hire another elementary school counselor, would be dependent on state funding. Regardless of the local support for a measure, local voters would be helpless to fund an extra program or hire an extra teacher unless state funding was sufficient to do so.
Residents could no longer depend on the local school board to set priorities and make decisions for the local schools. District patrons may not always be happy with school board decisions, but at least they know who is making them and who should get the complaints if they aren't satisfied with those decisions. Local school boards aren't perfect, but it's almost a sure bet that they have a better idea than some state official of what the educational priorities of their individual communities are.
The details of the statewide school levy haven't been worked out, but it's likely the local district would have to seek state approval for capital outlay projects like school additions or new buildings. The Lawrence district is likely to consider a major expansion in its secondary schools within the next few years. Are we willing to put that decision in the hands of the state board of education or state legislators who would decide how much the district should spend or what type of facility we should be allowed to build? Decisions concerning a new high school or expansion of the current high school or junior highs have been difficult enough to reach. Think how much more difficult and how much more political they would become if they were left to the state.
In general, adding another level of bureaucracy has never done much to improve the responsiveness of government to its constituents, and levying a statewide property tax to support local schools seems unlikely to be the exception to that rule.
There undoubtedly are ways the state, as well as local districts, can improve the school funding system and lessen the property tax burden on local taxpayers. It's important, however, to make sure that taxpayers are willing to accept the trade-offs. A state funding system that hog-ties local districts and hurts the quality of education in Kansas would be no long-term bargain for the state.