Are Kansas legislators looking for an excuse not to tackle school finance reform?
Any Kansas lawmaker looking for a reason to delay action on increased funding for public schools just got the perfect excuse.
Legislative leaders have extended the deadline for completing a study intended to provide guidance on funding a "suitable" education for Kansas children. The study, which hasn't even been started, now won't be completed until March 29. That will be in the closing weeks of the legislative session, far too late for the governor or legislators to use it as part of their funding strategy for public schools.
The idea for the study came about during contentious debate this year concerning the school finance issue. When it was approved, it was to be delivered to the Legislature by Jan. 14.
Delaying the study until March 29 seems to put the final nail in the coffin for school finance this year. School officials around the state already were pessimistic that legislators would consider increased school funding in an election year. What little hope they had now is gone.
It's impossible not to consider the possible political motivations for this move. The Legislative Coordinating Council, which approved the delay in the study, includes such members as Senate President Dave Kerr and House Speaker Kent Glasscock, both Republicans. Glasscock already has announced his candidacy for governor; Kerr's name often has been mentioned as a possible gubernatorial candidate.
An effort to significantly increase public school funding probably wouldn't improve either leader's relationship with the conservative end of the Republican Party, which successfully blocked such an effort this year. Better to put off any discussion of school finance reform until after the elections.
It's not unreasonable for legislators to want a firm factual basis on which to base their school funding decisions. Many legislators now are skeptical that local school districts are trying to do too much rather than sticking to the basics. They are concerned that districts aren't managing their money well and they are worried about how to balance the interests of rural school districts with declining enrollments against the growing schools in some Kansas urban areas. A completed study might have helped them build a logical strategy to approach these issues.
The delayed study results give legislators the perfect opportunity to also delay any significant action on school finance. Why would they consider major school finance reform before the study is completed?
Lawrence school officials already have resigned themselves to the idea that they can't expect much assistance from state officials this year. Although Gov. Graves cannot run for another term and is free from the political constraints faced by legislative leaders, he hasn't stepped forward in an effective way on this issue in past years and already has said he expects little action on school finance from the Legislature next year. It's puzzling that he has not taken a more active role on behalf of adequate funding for education.
What will it take to alter this negative course on education? A public outcry indicating that a legislator's support for increased school funding will result in more votes in the November 2002 election might do the trick. Barring that, Kansans should make school finance a major issue in the next general elections, then hold lawmakers accountable for meeting one of the state's most basic responsibilities.