Topeka Kansas Democratic legislators said Wednesday they have found Republican gubernatorial candidate Sam Brownback’s plan for funding public schools, and it would result in a massive increase in local property taxes and put rural schools at risk.
The Democrats point to a plan unveiled by state Rep. Arlen Siegfreid, R-Olathe.
Siegfreid’s proposal would eliminate limitations on how much school districts could raise locally in property taxes, and it would eliminate “pupil weightings,” which provide additional state funds for certain kinds of students, such as those not doing well in school, and for certain situations, such as districts that have high transportation costs. It would also require districts to apply for grants to receive funding for at-risk and bilingual students and vocational education programs.
“We must simplify and localize school funding,” said Siegfreid. “If we can accomplish these two goals, we eliminate many of the issues plaguing our current finance formula,” he said.
House Democratic Leader Paul Davis of Lawrence disagreed.
“There seems to be a concerted effort by the conservative wing of the Republican Party to return to a system whereby schools are funded locally, which we know from experience will result in disequalized schools and local property tax increases,” said Davis.
“Property taxes disproportionately harm small-business owners, farmers and ranchers, seniors on fixed incomes and the middle class,” he said.
Brownback, a U.S. senator, faces Democrat Tom Holland, a state senator from Baldwin City, in the Nov. 2 election.
Brownback has said he wants to overhaul the current school finance system, but he has declined to say what he would like to see done. Brownback’s campaign did not respond to the question of whether he supports Siegfreid’s plan.
Last month, Brownback said, “We need to ensure that we are not supporting policies that strangle a local community’s ability to support their education goals. It’s important that with our diverse counties that we make certain that every community has the resources to maintain good quality schools.”
He has also said he wants a higher percentage of school funding to go directly into the classroom, that he will provide leadership on the issue, but that it’s the Legislature that needs to come up with an overhaul plan.
“Our K-12 funding formula is broken as is evidenced by the recurring lawsuits filed against it,” Brownback said.
Schools for Fair Funding, a coalition of more than 70 school districts, has announced its intention to file a lawsuit against the state, alleging that substantial cuts in state aid to school districts over the past two years violates prior Kansas Supreme Court orders and the Kansas Constitution.
Democrats have argued that Brownback is wrong when he says it’s the funding formula that is the problem.
“The current school finance formula should not be thrown aside for this tried-and-failed approach,” said Senate Democratic Leader Anthony Hensley of Topeka. “Kansas schools have shown considerable progress since the finance formula was last adjusted in 2005. Test scores are up and children all across Kansas are excelling in record numbers,” Hensley said.
In 2005 and 2006, Schools for Fair Funding won significant increases in school funding from the Legislature after court orders from the Kansas Supreme Court. But much of that has been rolled back because of budget cuts.
Deputy Education Commissioner Dale Dennis said the Legislature would have to increase school funding by $415 million to get the funding level up to what was approved by the Legislature in 2008.
Holland, the Democratic candidate for governor, said if elected he will increase school funding as the economy recovers.
Holland has also said “as the state meets its commitment to public education” he is OK with local districts raising local taxes to support their local schools. But, he said, “Meanwhile, the state must meet its constitutional obligation to equalize educational opportunities across Kansas.”
Earlier this month at a Brownback campaign event in Overland Park with former Florida Gov. Jeb Bush, Brownback said he wanted to copy some of the education reforms pushed by Bush.
Holland has criticized this, saying the Kansas school system is in much better shape than Florida’s.
“Rather than present a specific plan of his own, Senator Brownback wants to copy Florida’s failed education system where the graduation rate is among the worst in the country, where poorer communities are forced to raise property taxes to keep their schools open and where public dollars are given away to private groups through vouchers,” Holland said.
According to a 2008 report from the National Center for Education Statistics, the national high school graduation rate was 74.9 percent. In Kansas it was 79.1 percent while Florida’s graduation rate was 66.9 percent.