Topeka When Republican Sam Brownback, the front-runner in the governor’s race, says he wants to reform the school finance formula but won’t say how, that raises concerns among those who have fought for more education funding.
That anxiety is heightened because Brownback, a U.S. senator, has been away from state government for 16 years and missed the political and legal fights over school finance that have produced the school funding plan that now exists. And Brownback is most closely aligned with members of the Legislature who consistently take schools to task for wanting more money.
Brownback faces Democrat Tom Holland, a state senator from Baldwin City, in the Nov. 2 election.
Funding the public school system, which takes more than half the state budget, will be a challenge for the next administration, especially in light of a continued strain on state coffers and the expected school finance lawsuit that alleges the Legislature has failed its constitutional duty to provide an adequate education for all students.
Holland says the biggest problem for schools right now is that they have had to cope with significant budget cuts in recent years. State education officials say it would take $415 million to fund the school finance law that was in place before the budget cuts were made. Holland, along with his lieutenant governor running mate, state Sen. Kelly Kultala of Kansas City, promise to restore funding as the state’s financial picture brightens.
“The state must meet its constitutional obligation to fund our schools,” Holland said. “That is why as the economy improves, the Holland-Kultala administration will invest dollars back into the classroom and we will oppose further cuts to public schools,” he said.
Brownback has outlined several goals for education.
“With regard to K-12 funding, we need to focus the state’s dollars on classroom instruction, promote innovation, reform the school finance formula, and pursue unified accounting of our school districts’ use of state funds,” he said.
He said if elected, one of his main goals will be to raise the reading levels of fourth-graders.
“If children don’t learn to read early, they are more likely to face a lifetime of difficulty in the classroom and the job market,” he said.
But exactly what is his plan for funding?
When state Rep. Arlen Siegfreid, a Republican House leader from Olathe, unveiled a proposal that would essentially blow up the current school finance plan and rely much more on local property taxes, Democrats pounced.
This was the Brownback plan, they said. And they produced analyses that showed the plan would hurt many school districts across the state.
“We’ve been down this road before, and it is truly the road to ruin,” said a letter from Democratic legislative leaders to school officials statewide.
After several days of blasts from Democrats, Brownback’s campaign issued a statement saying that he would veto the measure if given the opportunity.
Brownback has said that, if elected, it is not his job to dictate a plan, but instead to provide the leadership to get the Legislature to form a plan. He says he wants to bring stakeholders together to hammer out a school finance formula that, according to his spokeswoman Sherriene Jones-Sontag, is “fair, understandable to the public, and that promotes excellence.”
But some have found these statements too general. Kansas Families for Education, which has fought for increased school funding, endorsed Holland, saying that some of Brownback’s positions sounded good, but added, “Ultimately, however, the board found too many details missing to allow them to make an informed judgment on your position on education issues.”