Attorney for school districts says Brownback education finance plan would make matters worse

Gov. Sam Brownback says he wants to overhaul the public school finance system to avoid lengthy litigation that has surrounded the major funding function of state government.

“I am tired, and I don’t think it is effective that the system and the money has been decided by the courts for the last 20 years instead of the Legislature,” Brownback has said.

“Here is a plan that we think can address our needs and not go through litigation. It doesn’t engage the public when you do these things through litigation. You engage the public when you engage the Legislature,” he said.

But school districts suing the state over school finance say Brownback’s plan will guarantee more litigation.

“I’m not seeing Governor Brownback’s plan as fixing anything,” said Newton attorney John Robb, who represents a coalition of plaintiff school districts. “As a matter of fact, I think it makes it worse. It will not stop the lawsuit.”

Although not officially released, Brownback’s school finance plan has been trotted out before groups of education officials in recent weeks by the governor’s policy director, Landon Fulmer.

Brownback’s plan is expected to give local governments more control in raising local taxes for schools.

Robb and other school finance advocates see this as worsening inequalities in school funding between rich and poor districts, a situation that Kansas courts have ruled against in the past.

“I don’t understand why we are replowing this field,” Robb said.

The school districts’ lawsuit contends the Legislature has failed to provide the funding it promised to settle a 2005 Kansas Supreme Court ruling that found the system for funding schools unconstitutional.

Legislators responded to the court ruling by approving new funding to raise the base state aid for all students and then targeting funds for students who were deemed at risk of failing. But legislators have taken back much of that funding over the past three years as state revenues declined during the recession.

The state’s base state aid to public schools is now $3,780 per student, the lowest level since the 1999-2000 school. In the 2008-09 school year, it was $4,400 per pupil. The cut in funding has resulted in fewer teachers and more crowded classrooms.

Robb said that contrary to Brownback’s contention, the formula used to divvy up school funding is fine. It is the failure to adequately fund the formula that is causing problems, he said.

“You can build the best car on the planet, but if you don’t put gas in it, it’s not going anywhere,” Robb said.

The case is set to go to trial in June 2012.