Topeka Gov. Sam Brownback says his education funding plan will end lawsuits over how Kansas finances its public schools, but some educators and legislators doubt his changes would survive a court challenge.
Skeptics question how the plan would promise modest increases in state aid to dozens of rural districts with fewer than 500 students while providing no additional dollars to the state’s largest districts and schools with 75 percent of Kansas’ students.
Others don’t think his administration’s promise to prevent any district from seeing its aid drop is good enough to ensure an adequate education everywhere. His proposal to eliminate state limits on local property taxes also is drawing criticism.
Brownback wants to junk a two-decades-old policy of basing some of school districts’ spending authority on how many students are at risk of failing or don’t speak English well. Critics of his plan argue that the practice helps distribute more than $3 billion in state aid fairly, so that poor and minority students have similar opportunities as white and wealthy ones.
The Republican governor expressed confidence during a recent interview with The Associated Press that if the Legislature approves his proposal, the state will prevail in lawsuits, including one pending in Shawnee County District Court. He contends the changes he seeks will make the state’s school funding formula fairer, simpler and easier to understand.
“I want to see this done by legislation, not the litigation,” Brownback said. “I think we’ve got a really good chance then of being able to show the courts that we are going to and that we are dealing with what the lawsuit is alleging.”
But John Robb, a Newton attorney involved in the Shawnee County lawsuit, called Brownback’s plan “mystifying,” suggesting it will put the state in a worse position legally. Robb represents 32 students, their parents and guardians and the Dodge City, Hutchinson, Kansas City and Wichita school districts, who argue state funding is inadequate and that the money is distributed unfairly.
“It’s like pouring gas on the fire,” Robb said. “If they’re trying to end the litigation cycle, this sure won’t do it.”
The state enacted its current school finance formula in 1992, in response to a lawsuit. The state revised the formula in 2005 and 2006, also in response to litigation, with rulings from the Kansas Supreme Court mandating large increases in aid to public schools.
The latest case is scheduled to go to trial in Shawnee County in June. Robb said the complaint can be amended easily if Kansas overhauls its school funding system, with the case delayed perhaps only six months.
The state backed away from promised spending increases for schools after the Great Recession began in 2008, and Brownback successfully pushed legislators to cut base state aid per pupil by nearly 6 percent to help balance the state budget. It’s now $3,780 per student, far short of the $4,492 that state law sets as a target.
The Kansas Constitution says the state will provide for intellectual and educational improvement through public schools and that the Legislature will make “suitable provision” for financing them. The Supreme Court’s rulings in 2005 and 2006 said funding must be tied to the actual costs of providing a suitable education, leading to the $4,492 target for state aid per student.
Under the current formula, the state uses “weightings,” assigning extra value, for example, to students at risk of failing, artificially inflating the annual enrollment figure for each of the state’s 286 school districts. The policy provides extra dollars for special programs.
Brownback’s plan does away with those weightings. Instead, it takes the money from a statewide property tax levy, projected at $538 million for the 2013-14 school year, and distributes it based on each district’s property wealth, with poorer districts getting a larger share. Under the current formula, dollars collected within a district typically are spent within that district.
State Board of Education member Ken Willard said Brownback’s proposal “is a whole lot more understandable” than the current formula. Brownback said his plan is constitutional because it sets base state aid for each school district at $4,492 per student — the target in state law.
But Brownback’s plan ties that figure to each district’s actual enrollment, not a higher, “weighted” figure. Robb said the plan fails to acknowledge that some students, such as those who speak English poorly, require additional resources.
“There’s no point in saying, gee whiz, we’re going back to the statutory $4,492, because it doesn’t involve the weights,” said State Board of Education member Sue Storm, an Overland Park Democrat. “That $4,492 is not nearly as much as it appears.”
Brownback’s administration has made much of its promise that no district will see its state aid decrease for 2013-14. Under his plan, 182 districts would see their base aid increase by a total of $45 million, though increases are capped at 6 percent. More than half have fewer than 500 students; none of the 33 largest districts are included.
Some educators said they’re grateful the governor doesn’t plan to cut aid to schools further, but that the current amount of funding isn’t sufficient. Robb said the plan locks inadequate funding in place, divorcing it from the actual cost of providing an education.
State school board member Sally Cauble, a Republican from Liberal, said, “Some of these schools that are being held harmless have had to do some pretty serious cutting that is affecting and is going to affect their outcomes.”
But Landon Fulmer, the governor’s policy director, told her: “The fact of the matter is public money is not unlimited.”
State Sen. John Vratil, a Leawood Republican and an attorney involved in school finance cases into the early 1990s, said the only constitutional issue he sees with Brownback’s plan is whether overall funding is adequate.
He believes past court decisions give legislators “a significant amount of latitude” if state aid per pupil is between $4,000 and $6,000.
“There is no one right figure, and everything else is wrong,” he said.