Spring Hill students demonstrate computer-assisted learning. Officials anticipate school funding debate will take centerstage during the Kansas Legislature’s 2015 session. Legislators must also adopt a budget this year.  File Photo

Spring Hill students demonstrate computer-assisted learning. Officials anticipate school funding debate will take centerstage during the Kansas Legislature’s 2015 session. Legislators must also adopt a budget this year. File Photo

Danedri Thompson
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Education and budget will dominate debate in the 2015 legislative session. That’s the word from Rep. Bill Sutton and Sen. Julia Lynn. Both represent parts of Gardner and Edgerton in their respective legislative houses.
A three-judge panel ruled last week that funding to Kansas public schools is inadequate. The Shawnee District Court panel determined that state aid to schools “is not reasonably calculated” to allow Kansas students to meet or exceed standards set forth in a previously-decided Kentucky case.
“(State aid to schools) is inadequate from any rational perspective of the evidence presented or proffered to us,” the justices wrote in their opinion.
The justices did not set a spending amount, but made clear current state aid, $3,852 per pupil, is not enough. Attorneys who litigated the case for Schools for Fair Funding, a group of which the Gardner Edgerton School District belongs, estimate the ruling will require the Kansas Legislature to pump $548 million to $771 million additional funding into public schools.
“There’s a real can of worms there,” Sutton said.
The extra school funding is in addition to a more than $640 million budget hole legislators will be trying to fill during the 2015 session.
Sutton believes legislators may try to readjust the state’s school finance formula in response to the court’s decision.
Adopted 22 years ago, Sutton said the current school finance formula has been litigated ever since it was put in place. Prior to the recent decision, justices in 2005 ruled that school funding wasn’t “equitable.” Last week, judges determined current funding levels aren’t “adequate.” Both terms are a part of the Kansas Constitution’s Article 6, which outlines the state’s responsibility for public education.
Legislators could attempt to change the Kansas Constitution, removing those words. However, Sutton doesn’t believe that’s the path the legislature will choose. They’ll opt instead to change the funding formula. Under the current financing formula, schools receive a set amount of base state aid per pupil. The formula weights students based on things like the distance they live from the school buildings or those students on free and reduced lunches are worth more than one student. For example, a district with 3,000 students could be weighted in such a way that the state awards it base state aid per pupil for 3,800 students.
The current funding formula is broken, Sutton said.
“We need to take a real hard look at it and see what needs to be done to keep this thing out of court,” he said. “I think the only people happy with the school finance formula right now are the lawyers litigating it.”
Lynn said legislators will likely look at how the state weights students.
“We don’t seem to be equalized throughout the state,” she said. “So that’s going to be important.”
She also said the legislature may look at capital outlay funding.
That may mean making distance education through technology more accessible to rural schools.
Her constituents are frustrated with the layers of administration in school districts.
“There will also be some attempts made at how to put even more money into the classroom. It’s imperative,” she said.
School choice, or education funding that follows the pupil, should be on the table, she said.
“This is very frightening to the districts – the idea that education per pupil should follow the child,” she said. “…That’s how you create, I think, competition. The cookie-cutter system, I think, is disappearing. It needs to disappear.”
Lynn said legislators and certain groups have tried to have discussions about school choice in the past.
“But we need to get support from the Governor,” Lynn said. “As long as we keep doing the status quo – and I am not saying the Governor is embracing the status quo – I don’t think we have strong leadership on the education issue. There is a lot of fear on the part of legislators to take on such a loaded issue.”
However, Lynn believes it’s time to have an honest discussion about state funding following the student.
“Quite honestly, I think we need to get over our fear and do the right thing,” she said. “If it causes consternation and protest, then so be it.”
While legislators work through a possible new school finance formula, they will also need to draft a two-year budget for the state.
In late November, the Legislative Research Department estimated that the state revenues will be $279 million short at the end of this fiscal year. Next year, the department estimates the shortfall will grow to an additional $436 million.
“Some of that budget hole is real,” Sutton said. “Some of it is not.”
For example, he said the research department assumed that certain portions of the budget will be funded substantially more than they currently are.
Lynn said there may be some money in ineffective programs that can be used to balance the budget. However, she said it’s likely legislators will have to look at spending cuts and tax increases to fill the shortfall.
“There will be a big conversation about do we look at spending or do we simply look at tax structure?” she said. “It’s probably going to be somewhere in between.”
The 2015 session begins on Jan. 12, and is set to end 90 days later. However, Lynn anticipates this year’s session may run long.
“If we’re looking at the school funding formula, it’s not going to be simple, and 90 days is a pretty short amount of time to get that done,” she said.