Posted Date: 04/05/2021
Kansas students face two huge challenges. First, the economy demands more students with higher skills than ever before, yet for the eight years between 2009 – 2017, Kansas per pupil funding fell behind inflation and other states, followed by falling test scores and other states passing Kansas on education measures.
Second, the COVID-19 pandemic reduced in-person learning and social support, created emotional stress on students and families, and led to fewer students entering postsecondary education.
In response to the Gannon school finance lawsuit, the Kansas Legislature addressed the first challenge with a bipartisan six-year plan, beginning in 2018, to restore funding to inflation-adjusted 2009 levels by 2023. That plan is already allowing school districts to restore previously cut positions and programs, target more resources at under-achieving students, put more emphasis on preparing students for college and careers, and make Kansas teacher salaries more competitive.
The federal government responded with bipartisan efforts to the second issue by giving funding to public and private schools to deal with the health issues of the pandemic and help students recover learning time, as well as social and emotional support. These funds have already allowed districts to improve health protocols for safe in-person learning and will allow hundreds of thousands of Kansas students to get more support during the summer, during the school day and after school over the next three years.
Knowing that many students have likely lost ground over the past year, the on-going Gannon funding plan and the temporary federal COVID aid provides the opportunity to focus unprecedented resources for student learning and support, redesign how schools operate and build a stronger school system for all students.
Recent actions by the Kansas Legislature, however, threaten both of these responses.
The Kansas House approved a two percent across the board cut in state aid per pupil, reducing funding for teacher and student support positions and reducing compensation at a time when districts are working to rebuild from staff retirements and resignations due to the pandemic.
It cuts state special education state aid, leaving programs for students with disabilities even more underfunded and requiring larger transfers from regular education programs.
It cuts state aid for local option budgets and capital outlay funds, which means districts with lower property wealth will face even larger reductions or will have to raise property taxes to make up the difference.
Both base state aid cuts and reductions in aid to “equalize” local property taxes are directly counter to actions the Legislature took to address the Gannon school finance case. The Kansas Supreme Court has retained jurisdiction over that settlement.
The Kansas Senate has passed even deeper cuts - $570 million in base aid and LOB equalization aid over two years, with a proposal to replace those funds with federal COVID recovery aid. There are four big problems with this idea. First, federal law requires those funds go to districts for costs specifically associated with the pandemic. Second, because the federal aid is distributed on a different formula, some districts will lose proportionately more in state funding than their share of federal aid. Third, those funds are temporary. Once spent, they are gone; so unless the Legislature has a replacement plan, districts would eventually face a budget cut. Fourth, federal dollars spent to replace state aid is funding not available to help students, families and schools recover.
Finally, both the House and Senate have passed bills that expand public aid to private schools. The proposals do not require participating private schools to accept and serve all students, meaning the most expensive and challenging students would likely be left for public schools. Under our enrollment-driven funding system, public schools would then have less money to serve the highest cost students. These proposals do not require participating private schools to be accredited by the state of Kansas and report standardized student performance information and other data.
Kansas has traditionally been a national leader in educational outcomes, and still ranks high on many measures. But as Kansas school funding fell behind other states in recent years, some educational outcomes also slipped. Although Kansas educational attainment has never been higher, Kansas, like other states, still has too many students lagging behind academically and leaving school without the skills to earn a good living or fill the jobs businesses need for Kansas to grow. It is not that public schools are doing worse; it is that the need for higher educational attainment continues to grow.
Under the leadership of the State Board of Education and others, efforts are underway to improve student success: redesigning schools to be responsive to students and families; expanding early childhood education, improving basic skills and special services, more support for the growing social, physical and mental health needs of students, and individual plans of study for better college and career preparation.
The Legislature should support these improvements by funding schools that serve all children, not redirecting resources to schools that do not.