In Defense of Public Schools

With KanCare expansion waiting last week to see what the Feds did (nothing, as it turned out!) and budget/tax negotiations stalled under their own weight, last week was the opportunity for the Kansas Legislature to work on a school finance bill that would meet Constitutional muster. MainStream has already testified in favor of HB 2270, a bill crafted over the past six months, with input from communities and schools, based on proven ideas.

Instead of that bill, however, the House K-12 Education Budget Committee was given HB 2410, a bill put together quickly, with little input from schools, containing a wide array of ideas and proposals, including further expansion of public financing of private schools. Even though hearings were hastily arranged, MainStream testified against this bill on Friday.

The bill, which continued to receive hearings today, Monday, maintains three approaches to public education that MainStream believes are exactly the opposite of the what is needed to ensure the success of Kansas children. Let's break them down.

Public money for private schools

The bill includes provisions to expand Kansas' tax credit scholarship program. The existing program allows corporations to "donate" funds to the program, and in return they receive 70% of that donation back as a tax credit. The program then provides $8,000 for a student from a struggling public school program to attend a private school, including religious schools. The program is capped at $10 million, but if fully funded, the 70% return means Kansas taxpayers can pay as much as $7 million for students to attend private, religious schools. The Kansas Constitution states in Article 6 that "No religious sect or sects shall control any part of the public educational funds." But since this is a donation, it skirts that legal issue. The state does not pay for the "scholarship," instead it just gives a tax credit.

HB 2410 would expand that program considerably, allowing among other changes, that a student from any public school could receive the award. And while private schools would need to be accredited and have performance requirements, those requirements are not onerous. This would take the program from one aimed at helping struggling students, to one for people who simply prefer parochial education and cannot afford it.

But quite simply, taxpayers should never be paying for private or religious education. That the tax credit scholarship program exists at all is testament to the situation in the Kansas Legislature these past few years.

This year's Legislature should not allow this to pass.

Excellence for the few

HB 2410 also contains several provisions allowing local school districts to raise extra funds. While it is a complicated and poorly explained mish-mash of acronyms for Local Option Budgets (LOB), and Local Activity Budgets (LAB), and Local Enhancement Budgets (LEB), and it boils down to this: rich districts can continue to raise more money than poor districts, to "enhance" their offerings.

The state, under thus plan, would offer 80% of the budgets for districts, levied from statewide taxes. The remaining 20% is required to come from local taxes levied on behalf of the school districts. Then, above and beyond that, districts could enhance activities and other features with additional local taxes. But for poor districts, their tax base may be tapped out by the required 20% levy, leaving no funds for enhancement or excellence.

Which returns us to the original problem resolved by the Kansas Supreme Court: students must have the same opportunity to achieve, statewide. A plan that allows some districts to spend more than others, per student, solely based the capacity of their tax base? Inequitable.

The Legislature should not allow these provisions, as they are likely to run afoul of the Court's ruling.

Inadequate funding, again

HB 2410 was introduced first without numbers attached. One day before hearings were set to commence, dollars were added, and the resulting bill raised the investment by the state by only $75 million. This flies in the face of predictions from both the state itself ($500 million) and education-focused organizations ($800 million) when the Court first returned their decision.

And to be clear, the Kansas Supreme Court did not, we repeat, did not, require any certain amount of money in their decision. They merely noted that a quarter of Kansas students were not reaching the Rose standards in reading and math, and ordered the state to fix that.

In their long, thorough, and worthwhile testimony, the Kansas Association of School Boards repeatedly notes that, if fully funded, even a plan like the one in HB 2410 would go a long way to meeting the Court's requirements. But in light of the $75 million, the flaws in the plan cause it to fall far short. This was true of the previous formula used to calculate public school finance. The current block grant system is underfunded. Even a good bill like HB 2270 would fail to provide an excellent education if underfunded.

Back to the drawing board?

The House committee just wrapped up hearings today, Monday. The Chair has said he expects to have a bill passed by the House by April 7, so that the Senate can work on it. But it is clear to us, and to education advocates across the state, that even the best plan will fail if the state continues to underfund public education. Plans can be tweaked, fixed, and changed. It is the consistent disregard for the importance of education, the disinterest in the fate of poor and rural children, and the shortsighted inability to see the impact an educated population has on the success of the Kansas economy that weighs down these efforts.

Until all members of the Kansas Legislature recognize the value—economically, socially, and ethically—of an exceptional public education system, Kansas will continue to struggle to succeed.

We continue to watch, and record, the votes of our legislators.

Remember to do more than vote. Get informed. Get involved. Make a difference.

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