Archive for Sunday, June 23, 2002

School equity

June 23, 2002

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School funds are short, but efforts to raise money through local taxes will only undermine the state's effort to equalize public school opportunities.

Lawrence School Supt. Randy Weseman is right when he opposes efforts to pass local sales taxes to shore up funding for public schools.

As Weseman says, "that's poor public policy." Measures such as the one being considered in Johnson County also may be the first step toward the state ending up back in court to explain inequities in its public school funding.

The Kansas school finance formula is the result of the state's last encounter with the courts over this issue. At that time, the court ordered Kansas to do a better job of providing a uniform public education throughout the state. The formula seeks to equalize educational opportunities by collecting a statewide property tax and distributing those funds among districts making adjustments for enrollment size and other factors. The state's smallest districts, for instance, receive higher per-pupil allocations because it is more expensive to educate students in those districts.

It's not a perfect system, and it's understandable that some districts feel they are getting shortchanged. Displeasure has been heightened by the economic downturn that prompted state legislators to approve less funding for schools than they thought they needed.

It's admirable, in a way, that people in Johnson County feel so strongly about maintaining the quality of their schools that they are willing to promote a special sales tax to raise money that the state couldn't or wouldn't provide for their local schools. But it is the wrong course.

Among other things, allowing wealthy Johnson County to pour local tax money into its schools would only undermine school equity across the state. It's not unlike disputes that have arisen in Lawrence over private money raised for computer or playground equipment at elementary schools. Although it seems like a good goal to raise the money, there are basic inequities that result because of the differences in the amounts of money that can be raised in more-affluent and less-affluent neighborhoods.

It may be a lot to ask, but Johnson County residents need to be a bit patient. They aren't the only ones who are frustrated and looking at alternative ways to shore up funding for the local schools. Lawrence and Douglas County commissioners aren't considering a sales tax, but they are looking at ways they might help fund nursing or mental health services that aren't at the core of the school district's educational mission, but have become part of the district's budget.

State lawmakers recently received a report on what it takes to fund an "appropriate" education as required by state statute. As they examine this issue, their discussions will have to include not only how high the state should set its education standards but also how broad the mission of public schools should be. Should the state's primary function be to set and achieve higher academic standards? How far should the state go in funding the many non-academic functions that schools now fill, from intramural sports to bus transportation to health-care providers?

The state also needs to examine how funds could be allocated more equitably among school districts, and perhaps some type of additional local-option funding could be approved. But to simply open the door to whatever local tax measures school districts want to pursue would simply undermine the state's school funding goals and widen the gap between have and have-not districts in the state.

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