TOPEKA — The decision by the Kansas Supreme Court allowing nearly $200 million in new state aid to begin flowing into K-12 school districts in July signaled diminishing prospects of educational apocalypse.
“I don’t think anybody wants to see schools shut down,” said Mark Tallman, a lobbyist with the Kansas Association of School Boards.
The Supreme Court is moving to assess constitutionality of a new school-finance formula and changes to the K-12 funding scheme approved by the 2017 Legislature and Gov. Sam Brownback, but let provisions of Senate Bill 19 to be implemented pending outcome of that judicial review. The justices long ago made clear closure of schools was an option if lawmakers failed.
Attorneys representing plaintiff school districts argued the legislation fell short in terms of funding, while the state’s lawyers contend the amount and formula met constitutional standards.
For now, at least, the legislators, educators and students of Kansas can ponder a time when financial uncertainty no longer infects public education.
Sen. Molly Baumgardner, a Louisburg Republican and chairwoman of the Senate Education Committee, said she could afford to step forward with plans to lead her peers in evaluating the future of online instructional programs and opportunities to merge school operations. A dive into vocational education — absent the albatross of pending litigation — is reasonable, she said.
“The bottom line is a lot of the jobs we are having a difficult job filling, not only in Kansas but in surrounding states, are positions that need vocational training,” Baumgardner said.
The Kansas Department of Education and Kansas State Board of Education is moving ahead with a program involving at least seven school districts to test innovative ways of delivering an education. The idea is to focus more on individual student needs and apply successful ideas to all 450,000 students in Kansas.
The law under the Supreme Court’s microscope allocates $194.6 million in the fiscal year that started Saturday and amplifies that investment with about $98 million in additional state aid in the fiscal year starting July 1, 2018.
The money is destined for at-risk students, from pre-school to high school, in an effort to comply with the Supreme Court’s view of Article 6 of the Kansas Constitution. The document shaped the state’s obligation to fund the 286 public school districts throughout Kansas.
Under the new law, $83 million this year will be dedicated to expanding programs for students struggling in fundamental subjects. Slightly more than $62 million will fully finance all-day kindergarten, which will enable districts to reallocate resources and reduce student fees.
Students with disabilities will share $12 million in new state aid, and $2 million will be used to create more pre-school slots for 4-year-old students with special needs. Teacher mentoring and professional development initiatives will draw upon $1.5 million in a bid to elevate instruction.
“For the first time in a decade, schools will receive a much-needed increase in the state’s investment in our future generation,” said Amy Martin, president of the Kansas Association of School Boards. “After years of being stuck in neutral or worse, Kansas schools can repair the damage from previous cuts and make the necessary investments to help students.”
She said Kansas’ ranking in terms of per-pupil funding had fallen from 23rd to 31st in the nation from 2009 to 2015. While Kansas continued to rank high among states in student outcomes, she said, other states were improving faster than Kansas due to their increased funding.
Rep. Tom Sloan, R-Lawrence, said lawmakers adopted a new funding law that convincingly declared the cost of educating children differed and honored that reality with specific earmarks.
“The targeting is fine,” he said. “It basically goes back to the formula we had before. It recognizes there are different costs to educating students with different capabilities. I don’t think the money is adequate — certainly, not long term.”