Editorial: School finance

A new plan would make major changes in the state’s system for funding K-12 schools in Kansas.

Lawrence Journal-World opinion section

While waiting to see how one new school finance bill will hold up in court, Kansas legislators already are looking at another plan that would make far more sweeping changes in the way K-12 education is funded in the state.

The new plan makes some significant changes, some of which drew immediate concern. Key among those were a provision that would allow parents to use tax funds to pay for private schools and another that would bar districts from using state funds to pay for extracurricular activities or food service for students.

Under the bill, parents could receive an amount equal to 70 percent of the per-pupil aid in their school district and use that money to pay for private or home schooling. Although officials with the Kansas Association of School Boards said the plan would result in state money being spent on private education that lacks the accountability required of public schools, the authors of the bill see it as a step toward educational choice.

“It’s taxpayers’ money, and they should have a say in how it’s spent,” said Rep. Ron Highland, a Wamego Republican who chairs the House Education Committee.

What about all the Kansas taxpayers who want their tax money spent on public schools? Do they get a say?

Authors of the bill apparently see the elimination of funding for extracurricular activities and school lunch programs as a way to focus state money on core educational functions, but losing the opportunities offered by various activities and having hungry children in class isn’t an acceptable tradeoff. If local districts are left to fund extracurricular activities on their own, equity issues seem almost certain to arise. Some districts would be able to afford many more activities than other districts, and if some districts saw a need to charge students to participate in activities, they might be seen as restricting opportunities for low-income students.

The equity issues that have concerned the Kansas Supreme Court also may be aggravated by a provision that would allow local districts to levy a property tax for up to five years, with no limit but subject to voter approval.

The bill would return to a per-pupil funding system based primarily on the district’s size and the premise that per-pupil costs are higher in smaller districts. Districts under 400 students would receive $8,490 in base aid per student, while districts of 2,000 or more would receive $5,763 per student. Adjustments to that aid would be made according to how many low-income students and students needing bilingual services are in the district.

Highland said the bill was introduced this month “for everyone to look at and digest” and likely will be discussed when the Legislature reconvenes on April 27. The bill’s drastic changes already are causing some heartburn among education circles. It’s good that lawmakers and school officials will have ample time to consider the ramifications of the measure on the state’s K-12 system.