The details that continue to trickle out about the governor’s plans for funding K-12 public schools in Kansas are producing some anxiety among local officials and taxpayers across the state.
One of the primary selling points of the governor’s plan apparently will be to give local school districts more leeway to use both sales and property taxes to fund their operations. The governor’s plan won’t force local districts to raise taxes, Landon Fulmer, the governor’s policy director, told the Legislative Educational Planning Committee last week, but it will give them more authority to raise taxes if they want to.
Having more options usually is a good thing, but Fulmer’s statements need to be placed in context. If school districts can continue to operate with the level of funding they are currently receiving, no local tax increases would be required. Considering that per-pupil state funding for local districts is at its lowest level in more than a decade, that’s a big “if.”
Fulmer also told the committee that the Brownback administration has “a strong philosophical belief” that local districts should have unlimited ability to raise funds for public schools. Most communities want to support their schools, but there’s a limit to how great a burden local taxpayers can bear. Most local governments are trying hard not to raise property tax levies. Having the ability to use sales taxes to fund schools would provide another option, but it’s not a very attractive option for many smaller districts without enough retail businesses to generate much sales tax revenue. The governor has focused a variety of economic development on the rural areas of Kansas, but there is nothing more important to the future of those areas than to maintain a strong K-12 educational system.
Since taking office in January, the governor has repeatedly expressed concern about how frequently the state finds itself in court defending its school finance formula. However, one of the guiding principles of the court decisions is the need to provide roughly equal educational opportunities for students across the state. Giving districts unlimited ability to raise local sales and property taxes to fund public schools is almost guaranteed to create huge inequities between rural school districts and urban districts with larger property tax bases and more ability to benefit from sales tax collections. It’s hard to see how such a plan would escape further legal action.
The governor’s plan also seems destined to shift a large part of the responsibility for funding schools from the state to local governments. That may help the state balance its budget — and perhaps institute tax cuts — but it will do nothing to help school districts and local governments control their tax levies.
According to Fulmer, Brownback’s school finance proposal will include a “hold harmless” provision that would mean no school district that maintains its enrollment would get less money next year than it is getting this year.
That may be of some small comfort to school officials, but not much. As state legislators consider revisions to the school finance formula, they should remember there is more than one way to do harm to public schools — as well as the taxpayers’ pocket.