There were about eight students per classroom. The halls were carpeted; it was nearly as quiet between classes as during class. And the salary for teachers was 50 percent higher than at neighboring schools. It was the late 1980s, and I was visiting a student teacher I had placed in a Kansas high school that was fortunate enough to have a really major industry in its district. And those taxes, drawn from customers across the state, benefitted that school district.
One county away, a rural school with absolutely no major industry within its borders, housed all students from first grade to senior high school in one old building. It had wooden floors; after school you could hear the footsteps of anyone else walking in the building. Pipes ran along the ceiling of the hallways; the asbestos wrappings were just intact enough to avoid a violation. The school could not attract teachers to stay at a low salary.
This drift to inequality had occurred despite a previous attempt to equalize funding. In Caldwell v. State in 1972, a trial court found Kansas public education funding unconstitutional. Thus, the Kansas Legislature passed the School District Equalization Act in 1973 that established a base level of funding per pupil and required the state to make up any shortfall between local revenues and this base. But in the rich school I describe above, a district could rocket way beyond the base level.
Therefore, in 1990 the funding formula was again challenged in Mock v. State and an advance trial opinion held that: “the duty owed by the Legislature to each child to furnish him or her with an educational opportunity is equal to that owed every other child.” The Governor established a task force to produce another school funding system and it was adopted in 1992 as the School District Finance and Quality Performance Act.
The new school funding formula changed the school situation I encountered above. It evened out the funding. Salaries at the richer school were not as dramatically higher than at the rural school. Class sizes today run 15-18, and science labs are still better equipped. The rural school has remodeled their building, has some science equipment, but still pays less. The only teachers who stay are those with family in the area.
The Kansas Supreme Court has upheld the current funding formula as being constitutional in Unified School District No. 229 v. State in 1994. The current system allocates funding to schools starting with a base state aid per pupil (BSAPP). Other state and federal funds are also provided, often pro-rated on BSAPP, for rural schools, at-risk, special education, and various grants, etc.
Local districts can also raise some school funding by approving a local option budget (LOB). However, the Legislature sets the cap as a percent of state-provided funds. School districts cannot raise funds above the cap.
Today, one strategy being discussed for rewriting the school funding formula is to dramatically reduce the state BSAPP, eliminate the cap on LOB, and throw funding of schools heavily on local property taxes. As the old song says: the rich get richer, and the poor get poorer.
The lessons to be learned from all of this history is that: 1)whenever a new formula is established to equalize funding, rich schools slowly find ways to drift away, and 2)when the discrepancy between rich schools and poor schools becomes too great, the court will rule to re-establish equalization of funding.
Bottomline: The current school funding formula has been ruled constitutional.
Any new funding proposal will have to meet that criteria too.