Report calls for overhauling school finance

Kansas Statehouse in Topeka, February 2014.

? A special legislative committee voted Tuesday, largely along party lines, to issue a final report that calls for revamping the way Kansas funds public schools, focusing more on student outcomes and tightening state controls over how districts can issue bonds.

Although it is not a formal bill, the document will likely serve as a guideline as lawmakers try to craft a new school funding system to replace the one they repealed last year. Kansas spends more than $3.5 billion a year funding public schools, by far the largest single category of state spending.

The report by the Special Committee on K12 Student Success makes only general comments about how a new funding formula should be organized, saying it should “focus on each individual student” and “include accountability and reporting measures to ensure aid is being distributed according to the needs of each individual student.”

But it does suggest a complete overhaul of the annual assessments the state administers to measure how well students are performing in math, English and other subjects by scrapping the tests administered by Kansas University’s Center for Educational Testing and Evaluation, and instead hiring a third-party vendor from outside Kansas to develop and administer tests. And for high school students, it calls for the state to pay for every student to take the ACT college entrance exam.

Sen. Anthony Hensley, D-Topeka, second from right, raises questions about a special committee's report on K-12 school funding with the committee chairman Rep. Ron Highland, R-Wamego, and Sen. Steve Abrams, R-Arkansas City.

Rep. Ed Trimmer, D-Winfield, said doing that might easily violate the Kansas Constitution.

We’re talking about the State Department of Education and the state school board, which is an elected body with the constitutional task of governing education in the state of Kansas,” he said. “And we’re taking away from them the ability to create a Kansas assessment for Kansas students created by Kansans.”

But Sen. Steve Abrams, R-Arkansas City, said the state exams provide little useful information to policymakers because the tests change so frequently, it’s difficult to compare scores from one year to the next.

“Consequently we’ve got several years that we go through, it becomes difficult to get a longitudinal trend because we aren’t able to compare data from the previous year to this year,” Abrams said.

Deputy Education Commissioner Brad Neuenswander noted after the meeting that it was only a few years ago that the State Board of Education voted to contract with KU’s CETE, specifically because of opposition in the Legislature to working with a multistate consortium called Smarter Balanced.

“A couple of years ago, they didn’t want us working with outside (groups) because of data (security concerns), because it wasn’t Kansas-designed,” he said.

In addition, the report calls for requiring school districts to seek approval from a special legislative committee before they can be eligible for receiving state aid for bond and interest payments.

Sen. Anthony Hensley, D-Topeka, called that a direct assault on the concept of local control of public schools.

“If we are going to somehow try to intervene, with the Legislature determining what a local school district should be doing, or for that matter what local voters should be voting on, then I think that flies in the face of any sort of meaningful local control,” he said.

But Abrams defended that part of the report, saying the Legislature has a direct interest in how much debt is issued by school districts.

“The problem is that the local districts come and want state dollars,” he said. “And because they want state dollars, I am suggesting that indeed it is the responsibility of the Legislature.”

The report also suggests overhauling a category of funding known as “at-risk weighting,” extra money districts receive based on poverty rates, as measured by the number of children eligible to receive free meals. It suggests using other measures to count students who are at risk of failing or dropping out, such as test scores and classroom grades.

Hensley tried unsuccessfully to amend that provision, arguing that research shows poverty is a key indicator of a student’s likelihood of having trouble in school.

The report makes no specific mention of Republican Gov. Sam Brownback’s suggestion for including merit pay for teachers, which he called for in his State of the State address last week. But it does call for forming a special committee to look more in depth at a variety of issues, including teacher pay and special education, among others.

Meanwhile, the House Education Committee held a separate informational briefing Tuesday on the subject of merit pay.

Hensley submitted a separate minority report that took issue with how the majority interpreted some of the information and testimony it received, and criticizing the official report for discussing topics that were beyond the special committee’s charge.

Brownback has called on lawmakers to write a new funding formula this year, but some legislative leaders have said it could take at least two sessions to complete the process.

“It’s a huge, huge project, and whether we get to it or not, we’ll be working towards it,” House Speaker Ray Merrick, R-Stilwell, said after the meeting.

Senate President Susan Wagle, R-Wichita, agreed, saying, “I’m not going to force that to happen. We need a lot of preparatory time, we need a lot of discussion, we need to be looking at these reports … We’re also waiting on some court decisions.”