The leadership in the Kansas Legislature would have us believe that the problems of education funding have been solved by their block grant scheme. In fact, they are trying very hard to convince not just us, but the courts, the media, and the citizens of Kansas. But they are not doing a very good job.
On the face of it, they claim the block grants, enacted this year, provide ample funding, a stable path forward, and enough flexibility to satisfy even the most changeable of situations.
To the question of ample funding, they grants were capped at the amount each district received last year, and will not change next year. We and others have made the argument repeatedly that public education has been underfunded by the state for years, so starting at last year's total already misses the "ample funding" mark. With no planned change, not even inflation will be taken into account, automatically giving schools less effective money next year than this. And to cap it all off, each district's total had 0.4% skimmed off the top into an "extraordinary needs" fund. More on that in a moment.
Is this funding system more stable than the previous formula? For the state it certainly is, they know exactly how much they will be expected to spend next year. But for the districts, this fixed amount is the picture of instability. The population of students a district serves is fluid, and changes year to year. Numbers go up or down, needs change as students come and go. Just this year, some districts saw upwards of 500 new students, with no change to the funds from the state. The previous formula, while uncertain for the state, was designed to provide opportunities for every child in every school district. The block grants provide an unstable platform for Kansas schoolchildren, who do not know year to year whether they will get the education promised them by the Kansas Constitution.
But what of the flexibility? The block grants allow districts to spend their funds as they like. The previous formula determined how much would go to language tutoring, or to transportation, or other services as the district's needs dictated. But this amounts to districts having the choice of where to skimp and what to underfund.
And then there's the "extraordinary" needs fund. On Friday last week, districts received a letter telling them that at Monday's State Finance Council meeting, they should be prepared to explain how they had found "efficiencies" and saved money. It was implied this would give them a leg up in the competition for a meager $12 million the state would allocate based on "extraordinary need." With $15 million in requests, several districts were sure to receive less than they needed.
During the actual meeting, mention of these efficiencies was not made, and the Finance Council agreed to simply fund most needs at a discount. You asked for so much, we'll give you a percentage of that. Some districts, like Olathe, received nothing. Others, like KCK, received a quarter of what they needed. Wichita had their request deferred.
In the end, the extraordinary need fund only doled out half of its allotment. Perhaps the rest can be swept up to prop up the budget this Falll?
Be sure to read some of the comments made by members of the Finance Council in the reports below. Sen Masterson's dismissal of refugee children is eye-opening. For the record, the Finance Council at Monday's hearing was made up of Gov. Brownback and these legislators: Wagle, Merrick, Masterson, Ryckman Jr., Vickrey, Bruce, Burroughs, and Hensley.