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On January 1, 2017, the KHI News Service became part of KCUR public radio’s new initiative, the Kansas News Service. The Kansas News Service will continue to cover health policy news and broaden its scope to include education and politics. All stories produced by the former KHI News Service are archived here. Stories and photos may be republished at no cost with proper attribution and a link back to KHI.org.

Three key terms for Legislature’s special session on school funding

By Kyle Palmer | June 23, 2016

A special session focused on solving Kansas’ nettlesome school funding problem begins Thursday. At stake: school itself. The Kansas Supreme Court has threatened a statewide shutdown of schools if lawmakers don’t make funding more equitable before June 30.

It’s not an overstatement, then, to say most Kansans will be affected by what happens in Topeka over the next few days. 

But if you’re not a teacher, district administrator, lawmaker, parent or just someone who loves education policy (they do exist), then you may not totally follow what’s happening in these funding debates. Heck, even if you are one of those policy wonks, you may need a refresher. 

Here is a quick primer on some terms you’re likely to hear a lot as lawmakers try to hash out a funding fix.

Equity

In the Kansas Constitution, the state Supreme Court has found that all students have to have essentially the same opportunity at a good education. Before the early 1990s, most education funding came from local funding through property taxes. But because there are very wealthy districts and very poor districts in Kansas, the state, through a constitutional amendment, stepped in and said, “We’re going to take over most of the funding.”

As part of that, there has to be equitable funding among all districts. That comes in the form of state aid and aid to local option budgets. Every school district still has local property taxes they can levy. Because you can raise a lot more money with 1 mill in the Shawnee Mission district than you can in, say, Galena, the state has a formula to make Galena’s mill levy more equitable. 

But the essential puzzle lawmakers will be trying to solve is how to ensure all students in Kansas are getting an equal shot at a good education — regardless of where they live. 

Hold harmless

Some of the suggestions for how to solve this equity puzzle would move money from richer districts to poorer districts. This is an especially sensitive issue in Johnson County, home to some of the wealthiest districts in the state. Some of these proposals would have districts in Johnson County losing $4 million in order to equalize funding among all Kansas districts.  

Needless to say, the Johnson County districts don’t like that idea. To buy political votes, there is the notion in the Legislature that they will “hold harmless” some districts. That is to say, if your district loses money under a new equity plan (like Johnson County might), then the state is going to make that loss up with other funds. 

The problem with that is that the plaintiff districts (like Kansas City and Wichita, which sued the state over the equity of funding) will say that holding Johnson County districts “harmless” just continues the inequity of school funding. The state Supreme Court might very well agree with that view. The justices could say that, in this case, there will have to be winners and losers in order to make funding more equitable.  

Funding formula

The bigger picture is the funding formula, and though it is not likely to be addressed much in this special session, the term will come up frequently. 

What the funding formula does is, instead of just giving districts the same set per-pupil amount of money, it recognizes that districts have different needs. Does your district have a lot of English language learners because your district has a large immigrant population? Do your students need a lot of remedial help for one reason or another? Do they have to ride a bus for a long time each day because your district is big and rural?

The previous state funding formula took those needs into consideration, along with property values and a variety of other things. That formula was thrown out last year when the state went to block grants, which have since been ruled unconstitutionally inequitable. 

Though lawmakers won't have time in this special session to debate the funding formula in depth, it will come up. Conservatives want to push for a funding formula that takes into consideration a district’s outcomes (test scores, graduation rates, etc.). They think the state should look at the districts that have been successful and give those districts additional funding. 

This is a complicated issue with both educational and political consequences, and it will be a big part of the 2017 session — well beyond this special session. 

— Kyle Palmer is morning newscaster for KCUR