State board urged to seek millions in school funding

Topeka — Education advocates are urging the State Board of Education to request millions more in state tax dollars to fund public schools in Kansas, arguing that the money is needed to maintain recent achievement gains and a trained workforce.

Representatives of the Kansas National Education Association and Kansas Association of School Boards sent letters to the state Department of Education saying the funding request is in keeping with the 10-member state board’s duty to children.

Claudette Jones, executive director of the KNEA, which represents teachers statewide, advocated for full funding as called for in state law — which would mean more than $440 million alone in base aid to districts.

“Funding for schools must be both adequate and equitable,” Jones wrote in her organization’s letter. “The future of our state and our ability to attract and retain business investment is dependent on a well-educated, well-trained workforce.”

Staff presented the 10-member board with a list of budget ideas during its June meeting, including increases in base state aid per student, enhanced support systems and funding for teacher development. Board members haven’t discussed the proposals in public, though a public meeting is scheduled for Tuesday of next week.

Last year, the board sought hundreds of millions in additional spending for schools. Board Chairman David Dennis said at the time that members had an obligation to advocate for students and that nothing less than funding the state law would suffice. A phone call to his home Tuesday rang unanswered.

Decisions made at the July 10 board meeting will be forwarded in the fall to Republican Gov. Sam Brownback’s administration for inclusion in the 2014 budget request that will be presented to legislators in January.

Legislators approved about $40 million in increases in education spending in the budget that took effect July 1. It increased the base state aid per student by $58 to $3,838. That was the first increase in per-student spending since the 2008-2009 school year and reversed a string of reductions brought about by the state’s financial struggles during the recession that began in late 2007.

However, additional increases could be difficult based on new changes to the Kansas income tax code signed into law by Brownback in May. Coupled with a previously scheduled sales tax decrease, the income tax reductions will provide $231 million in tax relief during the fiscal year beginning July 1, with the annual figure growing to $934 million after six years. That means less money coming into state government coffers.

Mark Tallman, lobbyist for the school board association, said the state board has advocated for full funding of schools in the past and should at the least seek an increase in base aid for schools in the coming year. But, he said, the tax changes can’t be ignored — and what could happen to recent gains in student achievement.

“KASB urges the state board to determine the potential impact of this bill on school finance and on educational outcomes in Kansas and take a leadership role of working with the governor and Legislature to minimize harmful results,” Tallman said.

The funding discussion comes as a trial is under way for a lawsuit filed on behalf of 54 school districts. Their attorneys argued during a three-week hearing before a three-judge panel in Shawnee County District Court that current education spending levels are unconstitutional and that the state is in violation of a 2006 Kansas Supreme Court ruling.