TOPEKA, Kan. — Gov. Sam Brownback on Wednesday proposed an overhaul to how Kansas finances its public schools, a plan designed to give local school boards greater spending flexibility and unfettered power to raise property taxes.
The measure, which would take effect in July 2013, would scrap a two-decade-old practice of linking some of districts' spending authority specifically to the number of students at risk of failing or the number who don't speak English well. Brownback's administration promised that none of the state's 283 school districts will see its overall state aid decline.
Brownback is dropping a proposal his administration had outlined earlier to allow counties to increase their sales taxes to help support schools. Landon Fulmer, the governor's policy director, said the idea received a poor reception as he gave briefings to educators and legislators in recent weeks.
The Republican governor said in a statement that the changes will make the state's school finance formula more transparent, give districts more flexibility, focus more dollars in classrooms and end a "cycle of litigation" over how more than $3 billion in education funds are distributed. He described as broken the current formula, which was enacted in 1992 and revised in 2005 and 2006.
Fulmer told reporters during a briefing before the plan's release that Brownback also believes the plan will help meet goals he set during his 2010 campaign to improve fourth-graders' scores on standardized reading tests and ensure that more high school graduates are ready for college or work. Presenting the plan Wednesday to the State Board of Education, Fulmer said current state and federal academic standards will hold districts accountable for how they spend the money.
"They don't have their hands tied," Fulmer said. "We feel that it's a much more flexible, a much more transparent way of sending the money in and making sure that everyone has the resources that they need."
Fulmer said the administration expects schools' base state aid to increase by a little less than 2 percent for the 2013-14 school year, or almost $39 million. That contrasts with a nearly 6 percent decrease approved by legislators this year at Brownback's urging to help balance the state budget.
Educators have been wary, even though Brownback's administration has promised that no district would lose funding. Several state school board members noted that many school districts feel their current state aid isn't adequate, and Topeka schools Superintendent Julie Ford said the plan doesn't have a mechanism for helping districts keep up with inflation.
Mark Tallman, a lobbyist for the Kansas Association of School Board, also noted that the current formula adjusts a district's funding if, for example, its overall student population doesn't grow but an increasing percentage of those students are at risk of failing or don't speak English well.
"You're basically locked in place," Tallman said of Brownback's plan. "If your at-risk population changes, there's nothing in the state formula that responds to that."
Some Brownback critics question whether the current finance formula is flawed or whether the state has simply committed too little money to its schools. The Great Recession led the state to back away from big, court-mandated increases in aid to schools.
The state has been sued by 32 students, along with their parents and guardians, and the Dodge City, Hutchinson, Kansas City and Wichita school districts. They argue state funding is inadequate and that the money is distributed unfairly.
Kansas House Minority Leader Paul Davis, a Lawrence Democrat, said he isn't sold on the necessity of a "total overhaul."
But state school board member Ken Willard, a Hutchinson Republican, called Brownback's proposed formula "infinitely more understandable" than the existing one.
"It appears the formula provides a lot of stability," Willard said of Brownback's plan.
State law now caps school district property taxes, and under Brownback's plan, the cap would be removed. Critics of the idea worry that wealthy districts will move far ahead of poorer ones in the education they offer, but Fulmer said the formula is designed so that a wealthy district's local tax increase could trigger more state aid to poorer districts.
Fulmer said last month that Brownback would propose allowing counties to increase their sales taxes, with much of the revenue shared across county lines. But some legislators and educators questioned whether urban counties would want to increase their sales taxes, knowing local dollars would flow to other parts of the state.