A look at 3 school finance plans garnering debate at the Kansas Statehouse

The Kansas Statehouse in Topeka.

? The chairman of a House committee charged with crafting a new school finance formula plans this coming week to start reviewing the bills that have been introduced so far, and could open formal hearings on one of the bills as early as Thursday.

“It takes a while to get them assigned to the K-12 (Education Budget) Committee and give the public notice of hearings, but generally, we’ll be focusing on formulas the next few weeks,” Rep. Larry Campbell, R-Olathe, said in an email Friday.

So far, five separate plans have been formally introduced in the House, including three that were just introduced Friday, and some of them take vastly different approaches to funding schools from what the state has seen in the past.

Those discussions will begin while lawmakers, school officials and the general public are still waiting for the Kansas Supreme Court to rule on a lawsuit challenging the adequacy of current school funding. Most lawmakers expect that decision to give them some direction for writing a new formula, or at least how much money the state will need to put into it.

But House Speaker Ron Ryckman Jr. said he sees no need to wait on the Supreme Court before starting work on the new funding plan.

“We’re still gathering information and meeting with the community. Our hope is that something can be finalized before we leave for break (March 30), but there’s not a timeline,” he said. “We want to do it right. We don’t want to rush it.”

In 2015, lawmakers abolished a formula that had been in place more than 20 years and replaced it with a system of block grants that froze funding in place for the next two years. That block grant system expires on June 30, which means lawmakers must do something this year to provide for a way of distributing money to local school districts.

Gov. Sam Brownback has said he is not interested in extending the block grants for another year, although the administration has not proposed a specific new funding formula of its own.

Here is a look at three of the plans currently being considered, those for which the most background information is known:

Rooker-Kelly plan:

The plan that is most likely to be the first one considered was co-written by Rep. Melissa Rooker, R-Mission Hills, and Sen. Laura Kelly, D-Topeka. It is also the only one that the Kansas State Department of Education has analyzed to show the impact it would have on individual districts.

That bill, House Bill 2270, would phase in significant increases in school funding over the next four years, adding an estimated $336.5 million in the first year, plus an additional $200 million on top of that each of the next three years.

The Lawrence school district would see an increase of $5.9 million in the first year of that plan, according to the Department of Education’s analysis. The Eudora district would see an increase of just more than $1 million, and the Baldwin City district would get an additional $976,176.

Key elements of that plan include:

• Reinstating a per-pupil funding formula known as “foundation state aid” that would be based on each district’s prior year’s enrollment, and setting the amount at $4,235 per pupil in the first year, and gradually raising that to $4,895 per pupil in the fourth year, 2020-2021.

• Providing additional funding for students deemed “at risk” of failing or dropping out, but the at-risk student population would be based on Census Bureau estimates of poverty in each district rather than on a count of students eligible for free or reduced-price meals.

At-risk students would be counted as 1.456 students for funding purposes. Department of Education officials say that would probably result in slightly less at-risk funding than the old formula provided.

• Providing additional funding, equal to 50 percent of the foundation funding, for each student enrolled in a career and technical education program.

• Funding all-day kindergarten and counting those pupils fully for funding purposes. Kindergarten students are currently counted as half of a student because many only attend for half a day.

• Continuing to fund special education and transportation as they are under current law. However, the bill would gradually reduce the distance limit for students to qualify for transportation aid to 1 mile from school instead of the current 2.5 miles.

• Leaving the current 20-mill statewide property tax levy in place and allowing districts to adopt local option budgets of as much as 30 percent of their foundation budgets.

Other portions of current law would remain in place, including the 20-mill statewide property tax levy and equalization aid for capital outlay funds and bond and interest funds.

Rooker is also part of a coalition in the House supporting a tax proposal that would raise just more than $1 billion in new taxes over the next two years. That’s roughly what budget officials say is needed to structurally balance the state’s current level of spending, without any increases in school aid.

When asked where the money would come from to pay the additional $560 million it would take to fund the proposed formula, Rooker said that has not been decided yet.

“It’s not the final plan. It’s the starting point in discussion,” Rooker said. “It needs to be considered as part of the process, which is why I say the tax plan our committee kicked out (Thursday) night is a good beginning.”

Rep. Schwab plan:

Rep. Scott Schwab, R-Olathe, the Speaker Pro Tem of the House, is the author of another plan that takes a very different approach to funding schools.

Instead of funding schools on a per-pupil basis, his plan, House Bill 2242, would fund them based on an average cost “per classroom.”

Schwab said in a telephone interview Friday that he doesn’t expect that bill to become law, but he wants to start a conversation about ways to fund schools that avoid artificial spikes or drops in a district’s funding based on minor changes in enrollment.

“If there are 20 students in a 4th grade class and one of those students leaves, there are 19 kids in that class,” he said. “Your cost didn’t go down, but you just lost $4,200, or whatever the base was at the time. That kid goes to Johnson County and gets enrolled in a fourth-grade class where there are 19 kids and that moves them up to 20, well, their costs didn’t go up, but they get a bonus of $4,000.”

Under Schwab’s plan, the Legislative Division of Post Audit would conduct a study every 10 years to determine the average cost per classroom for a variety of different kinds of classrooms, taking into account the differences between elementary and secondary classes, and between such things as a science or computer lab and an English classroom.

Every 10 years, a new average would be set, and then adjusted each year forward for inflation.

In order to do that, however, Schwab said the Legislature would need to extend the block grant system for another two years in order to give Post Audit time to conduct an initial cost study.

“I wanted to do this last year so we wouldn’t extend the block grant quite so much, but it didn’t move forward last year, and I don’t think it will move forward this year, but it’s a great conversation,” he said.

O’Neal Plan:

Mike O’Neal, the former Kansas House Speaker and former president and CEO of the Kansas Chamber, gave testimony during one informational hearing in the K-12 Education Budget Committee in which he offered an idea that others have discussed in the past, and to his surprise, the committee asked for a bill to be drafted around it.

Essentially, it calls for the Legislature to appropriate a certain amount of funding for public schools each year, and then directs the Department of Education to decide how to distribute the money.

“You have the Legislature in the appropriation business. You have the department, then, in the business of determining how it ought to be allocated,” O’Neal said, “the theory being that they know best where the needs are than the Legislature does.”

That bill was one of the three bills formally introduced Friday, House Bill 2346.

As it was introduced, the bill calls for appropriating $4.075 billion from the state general fund for school district state aid in the 2017-2018 school year. Currently, the state is spending about $3.1 billion in general fund money for K-12 education.

“The peanut of what I’m saying is, now that the court is really focused on outcomes, which I think they should be, holding the Legislature accountable for something it has no control over — funding, of course, they can control — but in terms of what it’s going to take to get outcomes, that’s got to happen within the education community,” O’Neal said.

Campbell said Friday that the tentative plan is to open hearings on the Rooker-Kelly plan, HB 2270, as soon as Thursday of this week, or early the following week.