By Amanda Litvinov
Take Action ›
Don’t miss out on the kind of education, legislative and political news you can only get with EdVotes. Click here ›
Here’s what the Kansas Supreme Court conveyed to the state legislature in February: Pass a school funding formula that fixes funding inequities, or schools won’t open for the 2016-17 school year.
Specifically, the state Supreme Court mandated that “school districts must have reasonably equal access to substantially similar educational opportunity through similar tax effort,” which simply means that the state must once and for all provide reasonably equal education for all of its students by helping to equalize district resources.
If the state were doing its job on school funding, a lower-income district like Topeka, which has less ability to raise local tax revenue to devote to schools, would have similar resources to meet student needs as a much wealthier district like nearby Shawnee Mission, where higher incomes provide much greater local ability to fund schools.
But the GOP-backed plan that was rammed through the state legislature in mid-March in response to the Supreme Court’s ruling–and which Gov. Sam Brownback signed yesterday–has drawn severe criticism. Some say the proposal is simply a product of politics, and that the plan itself not only doesn’t fix the inequities between districts, but could actually deepen the disparities.
In allowing wealthier districts to retain more resources and thus continue to provide significantly more educational opportunity, the bill “can only be viewed as yet another package of concessions for wealthier, more politically powerful districts that continues to arbitrarily reassign winners and losers,” wrote Hensley.
“This merely furthers the inequity in funding for classrooms across the state; it does not cure it as required by the Supreme Court.”
It’s a “formula for disaster,” Hensley told the Kansas City Star.
An attorney representing four districts suing the state over inadequate education funding said during the Senate debate on the bill that the funding formula would not make any meaningful improvements for poorer districts, despite the fact that it redistributes some $83 million of the state’s $4 billion in annual aid.
It’s vexing to Hensley—who is now serving in his 40th legislative session—because he was one of the architects of a state finance policy that truly could have provided all Kansas kids with equitable opportunities through their public schools.
“Gov. Brownback and his allies repealed the school finance formula we adopted back in 1992 that made our finance system more equitable and more adequate,” Sen. Hensley told Education Votes in September.
“We set out to create that policy because we were under a court order,” recalled Hensley, “but it was so underfunded it couldn’t succeed. We’re in the same situation today as we were back then because education has been historically underfunded by this legislature.”
Governor Sam Brownback took office in 2011 with the goal of eliminating income taxes—an extremist plan that favors the wealthy, drains resources for public services including education, and places a heavier burden on hard working, middle-class families through other taxes. Then, the working coalition of Democrats and moderate Republicans in the Senate was obliterated when nearly a dozen moderates were pushed out in the Republican primaries of 2012.
“Kansas educators have been working harder than ever to deal with the realities of irresponsible tax cuts, the corresponding revenue decline and the increase in need these policies have produced,” said Kansas NEA President Mark Farr in a statement.
“On behalf of the educators of Kansas, I call upon the legislature to end the partisan gamesmanship and to fulfill its obligation to the kids of Kansas without reservation or retribution.”
Even if lawmakers don’t pay heed to the calls of educators to support all of the state’s students regardless of which zip code they live in, the legislature will ultimately have to answer to the court. Oral arguments on the new school finance bill have been scheduled for May 10.
“[I]f this bill is subsequently found to be unconstitutional by the Supreme Court, the majority party of this Legislature will have brought us dangerously closer to the Court’s June 30 deadline to comply with the Gannon decision,” wrote Hensley.
“If the majority party is truly concerned about keeping schools open next fall, they should have appropriated $38 million in the fiscal year 2017 budget bill which passed the Legislature over a month ago,” Henley continued.
“Appropriating $38 million would have been and remains a far more certain solution in meeting the equity test in Gannon than the uncertainty resulting from the passage of this bill.”