This political season has brought out several plans to restructure school funding. One suggests a return to a pre-1990s formula for school funding with little detail. The other is a detailed plan to only fund the base state aid per pupil from general funds and leave the substantial “extras” for at risk students, etc. to local community taxes to fund, with a tripwire for when the difference between rich and poor districts gets too great.
The problem posed by both plans is summed up by that old song Ain’t We Got Fun: “the rich get richer and the poor get poorer.”
I began placing student teachers across Kansas in the 1980s. I sent some to teach at small schools in old buildings. The asbestos-wrapped pipes were just within code. There was little lab equipment in the one-size-fits-all labs. Salaries were low.
Others did their practice teaching at average conventional suburban schools.
And I placed a few at schools that were very wealthy. One school district had high teacher salaries, under ten students in most classes, carpeted hallways and the best of equipment because the district was fortunate enough to have a huge production plant in its tax base.
But by the mid-1990s, the new school funding formula was funding Kansas schools more equitably.
Nevertheless, current school funding remains a complex formula with weightings for at-risk students, tech courses and many more factors to distribute both the state and federal allocations. Still, we have pressure from rich districts to increase their local funding. The “LOB” (local option budget) for additional local property taxes has allowed some disparity to return, and there is always pressure to raise the cap. I again see a difference between school facilities available to a student in the richer school districts and those in the poorer ones. And when there is a teacher shortage, it always hits the smaller and poorer districts first because the richer districts can hire away the remaining qualified teachers with higher salaries.
The underlying principle to school funding is that every Kansas child should have an equal opportunity for an adequate education. That requirement is spelled out in the Kansas Constitution and it will not go away just because the Supreme Court ruling is unpopular.
That is also the first problem faced by proposals to turn back the clock to the earlier funding system. The present funding formula has passed Constitutional muster. The earlier formula has not.
And the new plan to fund only basic per pupil from general funds and throw the rest to the local communities to support through local taxes ignores the fact that those poor communities are the ones already near bankruptcy under the current state redistribution.
Both systems throw more tax resources to the rich districts at the expense of students attending the generally smaller and rural poor districts. It is reasonable to ask if the new plans could pass Constitutional muster.
The second problem is that reliance on local taxes will result in accelerating school consolidation. We have already dropped from 303 to 293 USDs (with more in process) as small rural schools go bankrupt. Both new proposals can be labeled school consolidation plans because that is just what they will cause. The depopulating rural communities lack industrial tax revenues and have lower property valuation. They lack the ability to raise local school funding.
Political parties and candidates have been absolutely spineless in their avoidance of the “c” word. Beyond tepid remarks about local decision making, they are ignoring the fact that these altered funding plans will drive consolidation.
Return to rich schools and poor schools? Speed up school consolidation? We must ask the hard questions now, or live with the wrong decisions after November.