Opinion: School funding battle may continue
Last week more than 100 people watched Gov. Laura Kelly sign a K-12 school finance bill that will increase school funding by approximately $90 million dollars in each of the next four years. Some Republicans joined Democrats to vote for the bill and Kelly called the support an example of legislative compromise and her signing a victory for schools.
The legislation responds to a previous Kansas Supreme Court order requiring the legislature to include costs for inflation in the 2018 five-year $525 million increase in state education appropriation. Before implementation, the court must review and rule on the adequacy of the negotiated plan.
If the amount of funding appears to be a generous handout, let’s not forget what got the state to this point. The aftermath of the 2008 economic crash led to reduction in states’ education spending across the nation. That reduction, coupled with the effect of cuts in Kansas income tax, resulted in 10 years of decline in public education funding, placing adequate resources for Kansas students in jeopardy.
The compromise legislation signed last week should go a long way to replacing the lost school funding.
Nevertheless, as clear as the path to fully funded schools looked at the signing last week, public education in Kansas is still a long way from being out of the woods. There are two issues:
First, most lawmakers as well as most Kansans hope that the compromise plan will end the nine-year lawsuit over K-12 education. However, as yet there appear to be only a few shifts in the ongoing funding battle.
Conservative lawmakers have not changed their belief that school funding should be restrained to encourage efficient spending and that schools should be held more accountable for their spending and for student achievement ratings. Lawmakers advanced those beliefs in the bill through required yearly school reports. Moreover, Schools for Fair Funding representing more than 50 districts, four of which — Wichita, Hutchinson, Kansas City and Dodge City — sued the state for inadequate funding, recently said the $90 million expansion in state aid was insufficient. Attorneys for the four districts plan to file Kansas Supreme Court briefs to increase the funding. In addition, funding for new needs in early childhood education are on the horizon.
It’s great that a more substantial school resource foundation will be coming, but political consensus needs to solidify and move forward before our students can get the education they deserve. Here’s the second problem: The negotiated plan allows schools to spend money basically the same way as in the past.
Districts have used the increase that started in 2018 to pay teachers more, hire additional staff and reduce class sizes. These are practical, sorely needed, useful expenditures approved widely by Kansans. However, if all that happens with increased funding is to return schools to their 2008 pre-economic crash/tax cut status, students will not benefit fully.
Kansas schools can free-fall toward the past or they can invest in curriculum and technology to prepare students for the challenges of citizenship in the 21st century and future careers.
Adequate funding is necessary but not sufficient to give, in the words of Kelly, “all Kansas children — no matter who they are or where they live — the opportunity to succeed.”
More funding may soon be on its way. Now the hard work of building a strong, future-focused education system will begin.
— Sharon Hartin Iorio is professor and dean emerita of Wichita State University College of Education.