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Archive for Saturday, March 6, 2004

Added incentive

March 6, 2004

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Perhaps the threat of a special session will help Kansas legislators focus on the need to provide increased funding for the state's K-12 schools.

It's good that Gov. Kathleen Sebelius is signaling her willingness to call members of the Kansas Legislature back into session if they fail to address the state's school funding issues.

So far this year, legislators primarily have been focused on legal maneuvers and efforts to delay any school funding decisions until after the November elections. They successfully passed a measure to try to speed an appeal of the district court ruling that the state school finance system was unconstitutional but, even if the appeal is accepted, it won't come in time to affect the current legislative session.

The governor told a group of editorial writers on Monday that legislators are becoming more engaged in the school finance issue. A smaller version of the governor's $304 million proposed school package, in fact, was gathering support in the Kansas House this week until debate abruptly was ended by the House speaker. At Monday's meeting, Sebelius said her top school priorities were to arrive at some kind of balanced tax package that would allow the state to raise base per-pupil funding and provide more funding for at-risk students.

It's time for legislators to get to work on this issue. All the legal wrangling in the world isn't going to erase the fact that state funding for public K-12 schools has fallen woefully behind in the last decade. The fact that legislators see no way to comply with Shawnee County District Judge Terry Bullock's suggestion that the state may need to allocate as much as $1 billion more a year to adequately fund schools, doesn't excuse them from doing anything to boost school funding.

According to figures compiled by the National Education Assn. Kansas ranks about in the middle of the nation in per-pupil funding for K-12 schools. That ranking is a little above our neighboring states, but that fact that Oklahoma, Colorado and Missouri have significantly higher K-12 enrollment than Kansas may influence that figure because per-pupil costs are higher in low-enrollment districts.

It's also telling that Kansas ranks 41st in the nation in terms of teacher salaries, with an average salary that's more than $1,000 below Missouri's and $4,500 below Colorado's. (Nebraska's average is about $225 below Kansas' and Oklahoma's is about $3,240 below.) Gov. Sebelius also notes that base per-pupil spending in Kansas, which now stands at $3,863, has risen only $263 since she was in the Kansas House in 1992, hardly enough to keep up with inflation or increased health insurance costs.

Whether or not Bullock eventually is allowed to enforce a legal remedy on the state's school finance system, legislators have an obligation to start playing catch-up on state funding to public schools.

If they can't see that now, perhaps it will become more clear during a special legislative session called by the governor specifically to focus on this important issue.

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