Perhaps it is a sign of progress that the Democratic governor, the Republican leaders in the Kansas House and Senate all have school-finance plans on the table. It's hard to find a middle ground until it's apparent what the most important issues are to the parties involved.
The most important issue to GOP leaders in the Kansas House and Senate appears to be to avoid approving any high-profile tax increases that people could point to while incumbents are campaigning for re-election next November.
The GOP House plan released last week would achieve deniability for candidates by passing the buck to local school districts. It does that by allowing local districts to eliminate the "homestead" property tax exemption on the first $2,300 of a residence's assessed value. The move would cost every homeowner in the district $46 a year, whether the home in question is worth $50,000 or $500,000. It's the most regressive possible property tax increase because it proportionately hits low-income Kansans much harder than higher-income residents.
If all districts eliminated the homestead exemption, it would provide up to $40.5 million statewide to help fund special-education programs. House Republicans also plan to spend $28.5 million for teacher mentoring, bilingual education and programs for children at risk of dropping out of school. The funding source for that part of the program isn't identified, but the plan's authors say it can be gleaned from existing state resources.
A huge weakness in the House GOP plan is that it will widen the district-to-district funding inequities that already are a focus of Shawnee County District Judge Terry Bullock's ruling that the state's school-finance system is unconstitutional. In addition to the homestead property tax option, it also would allow 16 districts, including Lawrence, to raise additional property tax funds to help supplement teachers salaries.
On Friday, Republican Senate leaders proposed a plan to increase state school funding by $65 million, including $44.5 million in unrestricted funds ($100 per student), $8.5 million for special education and $5.1 million for programs aimed at poor and minority students. The plan would be funded using $20 million to $22 million from increased state alcohol taxes, plus $45.9 million acquired through what some might consider sleight-of-hand budgeting moves such as revising the state's payment of tax refunds, its use of business tax credits and access to unclaimed private property.
The Senate funding mechanisms are preferable to the House's emphasis on local property taxes but the $65 million total falls far short of the governor's plan to invest $304 million in schools over three years and even further short of the $1 billion a year Judge Bullock estimated the state might need to spend to meet its K-12 education responsibilities.
So where is the middle ground? The governor said earlier this month that her top priorities for school funding are to add money to the per-pupil base, provide additional funding for at-risk student programs and to accomplish that using a balanced tax approach. Her plan calls for a 5 percent surcharge on personal income taxes, an increase in the state sales tax from 5.3 cents to 5.7 cents per dollar by July 2006 and one-mill increases in the state property tax levy in 2005 and 2007.
Both the House and Senate plans include funding for at-risk students, and the Senate plan adds money to the base, but neither one comes close to the balanced sales, property and income tax funding proposed by the governor.
"Stopgap" seems to be the word of the day. Leadership in both the House and Senate want to do just enough to allow schools to get by without significant tax increases until after 1) the November election and 2) Judge Bullock or the Kansas Supreme Court forces them to do more.
It doesn't seem to have a lot to do with what is best for the children of Kansas. With this attitude in the Kansas Legislature, is it any wonder this matter probably will be decided by the judicial branch?