Jonathan Shorman
August 29, 2015

After the State Finance Council rendered judgment on dozens of school district requests for additional aid this past week under Kansas’ new, temporary block grant education funding law, policymakers appear headed for a debate over whether the exercise should became a permanent part of the process.

On one side: Republicans who want schools to operate with a business mindset, always scouring for efficiencies. The State Finance Council process gives them maximum leverage, allowing them to deny aid requests if they think a district’s case isn’t strong enough.

On the other side: Democrats who say schools are underfunded and want the formula to be able to provide extra funding when needed, perhaps without an appearance before the council, which is composed entirely of legislative leaders and the governor.

This past spring, lawmakers scrapped the state’s funding formula that had been in place since the early ’90s. In its place, the Legislature approved and Gov. Sam Brownback signed legislation creating a block grant funding system for school districts.

The block grant system is designed to be temporary, however, and the law will expire eventually unless lawmakers take further action. The idea is that the Legislature will craft a new, permanent formula within the next couple of years.

Exactly what the new formula should look like is still almost entirely up in the air. But this past week’s State Finance Council meeting has drawn attention to arguably the most dramatic aspect of the temporary system — the extraordinary needs funding process — and raises questions about whether that part of the block grant system will make it into the eventual permanent formula.

On Monday, the council doled out about $6 million, from a pot of about $12.3 million, in aid to districts that have lost funds due to declining property values or have experienced increased enrollment. The council made its decisions in a meeting that spanned much of the day.

Officials from the districts watched in rapt attention as the panel weighed their requests with no guarantees that they would receive anything. In the end, most districts received some money, though in many cases far less than they had sought.

Senate President Susan Wagle, R-Wichita, sits on the council. While the administration had recommended providing additional aid to schools with enrollment increases in excess of 1 percent, Wagle proposed increasing the threshold to 2 percent.

The council ultimately sided with her. After the meeting, Wagle extolled the process to a reporter in response to a question about whether it should be integrated into a new formula.

“Oh, I think we had an excellent process today. The districts were able to air their individual concerns, and we had the data in front of us before we met and we were able to ask questions. I think today we were fair to districts and to the Kansas taxpayers,” Wagle said.

Brownback, through a spokeswoman, suggested the extraordinary needs process should become part of the permanent formula.

“While it’s too early to speculate on what the new formula will include, the Governor does believe the extraordinary needs funding process is helpful to improving the lines of communication and understanding between educators and members of the legislature,” spokeswoman Eileen Hawley said in a statement.

Officials from individual districts had a chance to make their case to the council, but only after Senate Minority Leader Anthony Hensley, D-Topeka, asked Brownback, who chairs the council, whether such presentations would be allowed. Hensley, as he has often said, reiterated that he believes the old funding formula worked, but was underfunded.

Before the meeting, the council requested the districts provide documents outlining steps they had taken to become more efficient. Those documents weren’t cited by council members during public discussion, however.

Hensley expressed openness to some mechanism in the permanent formula that would allow districts to request additional funds, but suggested the council isn’t the right place for that.

“Included in a new formula, I think there ought to be some sort of appeals process that allows districts to recoup their losses in the current school year,” Hensley said. “I’m not that comfortable with keeping that in the hands of the Finance Council. It might be something where we devise some sort of independent commission of education experts.”

Hensley said the “nine politicians” on the council don’t often have a good grasp of what is going on in schools.

Hawley said Brownback strongly supports maintaining the Legislature’s constitutional power over the appropriations process, a suggestion that perhaps the process should remain in the hands of the council.

Some districts may prefer to see the extraordinary needs process, if it remains in the final formula, handled by another body, said Mark Tallman, associate director for advocacy at the Kansas Association of School Boards. Tallman said KASB doesn’t have an official position on the question, however.

“I think at least some schools might argue, for example, that maybe the state board of education might be a body better able to weigh the educational costs of these issues,” Tallman said.

“Certainly, the State Finance Council, those are people involved in setting budgets. So I’m not saying they shouldn’t have any role at all, but it also seems if you have made the decision on how many dollars are going to be available, maybe that’s not the best group to weigh those details.”

Taking a broader view, Kansas’ approach to education stands in contrast to its approach to bringing businesses to the state, argued Annie McKay, the director of the Kansas Center for Economic Growth. She is also a registered lobbyist.

While districts can use the extraordinary needs process to petition the state for funds to defray the costs associated with unexpected situations, McKay said no similar process exists to allow districts to seek extra funds to try new and innovative ideas or projects. Meanwhile, businesses can seek proactive incentives, such as tax credits, as the state seeks to stimulate economic growth.

“If we looked at education the same way, it would position the state to be really innovative,” McKay said.

Read more from the Topeka Capital Journal here.

Lisa OwenTOPEKA CAPITAL JOURNAL: Debate likely over whether State Finance Council should play role in new school funding formula