Thursday, November 7, 2013

Legislators jump into school finance debate

By SCOTT ROTHSCHILD, The Lawrence Journal-World

TOPEKA, KAN. — Facing a possible court order to increase school funding, legislators on Wednesday jumped into the depths of school finance, kicking off what will likely be one of the most contentious debates of the next legislative session.

"I think it is the foremost issue of this next year," said state Rep. Kasha Kelley, R-Arkansas City, and chairwoman of the Special Committee on Education.

The committee heard detailed reviews of the way the state funds public schools, litigation surrounding the system and comparisons between Kansas and other states.

On Thursday, legislators were scheduled to hear presentations by the Kansas Policy Institute, which advocates for lower school funding and whose research is regularly cited by Republicans who are in charge of the Legislature.

Legislators will tackle school funding after the Kansas Supreme Court issues its decision in an appeal of a lower panel's ruling that ordered the state to increase spending to public schools by upwards of $500 million per year.

The lower court said the Legislature unconstitutionally cut school funding while passing mammoth tax cuts.

Republican legislative leaders have said the judicial branch has no business telling legislators how much to fund schools. They have said they may try to change the way school funds are allocated rather than increase funding.

School funding includes a set amount for each student. That base state aid level is currently $3,838 per student, which is the lowest level it has been since 2001.

Additional funds are provided for various categories to reflect increased costs needed to educate certain groups of students. These adjustments are called weightings. For example, additional funding is allocated for programs that help students who are at-risk of failing. The at-risk weighting is based on the number of students who receive free lunch.

But state Sen. Jeff Melcher, R-Leawood, said he didn't believe the at-risk funding was properly based. "I understand it to be more political than directed toward a need for funding for those particular students," Melcher said.

State Sen. Ralph Ostmeyer, R-Grinnell, who represents a rural district, said sometimes he is asked why he supported increases in the at-risk weighting. He said it was a deal he made to ensure that small, rural school districts continued to receive additional funding under the low enrollment weighting.

In testimony to the committee, experts said most states provide additional funding for at-risk or low-income students.

Jeff Spalding, director of fiscal policy and analysis with The Friedman Foundation for Educational Choice, said the Kansas system is generally the same as others.

"The Kansas school finance formula has a very typical design. It looks like a lot of other school funding formulas," he said.

But he said states routinely tailor the school finance system to their needs and the local political landscape. He added, "Obviously any changes you make creates winners and losers."