Many state leaders agree that changes and perhaps increases in public school funding are needed. A proposed study may help them see where the money should go.
It's a cinch that Kansas doesn't need another study to sit on a shelf. That being said, a study aimed at helping the state set a strategy for funding public schools could be a worthwhile effort.
The Kansas Senate approved a proposed school spending study last week, but the bill faces opposition that put its future in the Kansas House in doubt. The bill would direct the Kansas State Board of Education to initiate a study of the state's law for distributing money to its 304 school districts. It also wants a clearer indication of what constitutes a "suitable" education for Kansas students and what such an education would cost.
The study was a top recommendation of a task force appointed by Gov. Graves last year that looked at school finance issues. Task force members said the study was a necessary prelude to any serious discussion of major changes in the school finance law.
Opponents say the study is unnecessary because state law already sets education standards for schools. They also fear the consequences if the study concludes that large increases are needed in school funding. There also is the fear that a study won't provide any significant new data or take the state any closer to resolving school finance issues.
But what is the alternative? School districts are having more and more trouble maintaining programs and hiring top teachers. Programs continue to grow to meet the ever-expanding mission that Kansans want their schools to fulfill. Wealthier districts in the state are growing frustrated with seeing their tax revenue diverted to districts in other parts of the state while spending lids prevent them from funding the improvements they want to see in their own schools.
Probably any school leader in the state would say his or her district needs more money, but does it make sense to simply appropriate more and more money on schools without setting a long-term vision of what the state wants to accomplish with that money?
In order to determine what a "suitable" education in Kansas would cost, a study would have to determine exactly what that term means. The bill passed by the Senate defines a suitable education as including courses necessary to prepare students for college, including foreign language, fine arts and science. Does it also include vocational education for students who won't go to college? Does it include a large variety of extra-curricular activities? Does it include almost unlimited services tailored to the individual needs of students with special needs?
How will the state deal with school districts where enrollments are declining and high schools are closing? Will students in those areas face increasingly long bus rides or can electronic communication allow them to continue their education closer to home?
There are many questions about where the future will take public schools in Kansas. The study recommended by the governor's task force and approved by the Senate won't answer them all, but, if done properly, it should give legislators at least some guidance in how to direct spending to the state's most basic and urgent educational needs.
If approving a study is simply a convenient way for legislators to postpone their responsibility to education, then it is a waste of taxpayers' money. But if the study can offer some direction to education spending and help justify new spending and possibly additional tax revenue for public schools, it could, indeed, help Kansans raise the bar for their education system.