Archive for Monday, January 31, 2005

Lawmakers hammering out school finance plan

January 31, 2005


— Legislative leaders say they will produce a school finance plan in the next two weeks, but as of now no specifics have emerged.

"We're still working on education," said Senate President Steve Morris, R-Hugoton. "We'll have something in the next week or two."

In the House, Rep. Kathe Decker, R-Clay Center, said a plan would emerge from the House Select Committee on School Finance within the same time frame.

The Legislature faces an April 12 deadline imposed by the Kansas Supreme Court to fix the $2.7 billion school finance system.

The court said more money was needed for schools and that the Legislature needed to direct more funds to programs that serve students who have limited English speaking skills and students from disadvantaged backgrounds.

Morris said no price tag had been discussed on a school finance bill, but Decker said in the House there had been costs mentioned that range from $80 million to $300 million for one year.

But Decker said before legislators discuss the level of funding and how to raise the money, they must decide how they are going to change the method of distributing the funds.

"I want to deal with policy first," she said.

In hearings last week, it was revealed that school districts spend about $19.7 million to teach children who have limited English speaking skills, but that the state provides less than half of those funds.

Decker said more funds were needed for programs that address "at-risk" students, though that figure is more elusive, she said.

Also last week, Deputy Education Commissioner Dale Dennis presented a report on the costs of education based on a survey of 55 school districts from across the state and representing all enrollment categories.

The report found that for "regular" students, about $5,100 is spent per student when taking into account state and local dollars.

But what educators said was needed ranged from $5,258 per student to $13,219 per student, with the median being $6,366 per student. The funding gap gets even greater with the addition of at-risk and bilingual students.

Lawmakers who oppose tax increases for schools said the survey was inadequate, while others said it was good information that could be used to start the debate on school funding.

Morris and other lawmakers said they wanted to create an oversight commission that would take a comprehensive look at public schools in Kansas and report to the Legislature annually on what changes were needed.

"They would look at everything from erasers to administrators," Morris said.

Senate Democratic Leader Anthony Hensley of Topeka has said he would like any funding plan to cover several years, such as the state's comprehensive transportation spending plan.

"If we can fund a highway plan for 10 years, surely we can fund a school finance plan for three years," Hensley said.

Another battle is forming over whether to try to define a "suitable" education. The state Supreme Court has declared the Legislature failed its constitutional duty to "make suitable provision" for school finance.

Decker and several other leaders in the House want to write into state law what components would make up a "suitable" education. But other lawmakers have said that proposed legislation leaves out many important facets of education.

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