Kansas report calls for overhauling school finance
TOPEKA — A special legislative committee voted on party lines Tuesday to issue a final report that calls for revamping the way Kansas funds public schools, focusing more on student outcomes and tightening state controls over how districts can issue bonds.
Although it is not a formal bill, the document will likely serve as a guideline as lawmakers try to craft a new school funding system to replace the one they repealed last year. Kansas spends more than $3.5 billion a year funding public schools, by far the largest single category of state spending.
Republican Gov. Sam Brownback has called on lawmakers to write a new funding formula this year, but some legislative leaders have said it could take at least two sessions to complete the process.
The report by the Special Committee on K12 Student Success makes only general comments about how a new funding formula should be organized, saying it should "Focus on each individual student" and "Include accountability and reporting measures to ensure aid is being distributed according to the needs of each individual student."
But it does suggest significant changes in the way the state distributes aid for "at risk" students, those deemed vulnerable to failing or dropping out.
Instead of basing that on poverty status, as the old formula had done, the report says such funding, "should be based directly upon a student’s ability to learn," suggesting that test scores, classroom grades and other measures should be used to determine at-risk status.
It also calls for scrapping the system of giving annual assessments in reading and math, a program currently run by Kansas University's Center for Educational Testing and Evaluation, and instead hiring a third-party vendor from outside Kansas to develop and administer tests.
And it calls for the state to provide funding for every high school student to take the ACT college entrance exam.
In addition, it calls for requiring school districts to seek approval from a special legislative committee before they can be eligible for receiving state aid for bond and interest payments.
The report makes no specific mention of Brownback's suggestion for including merit pay for teachers, which he called for in his State of the State address last week. But it does call for forming a special committee to look more in depth at a variety of issues, including teacher pay and special education among others.
Sen. Anthony Hensley, D-Topeka, the ranking minority member on the panel, offered several amendments to the report, although most were defeated on party-line votes.
But he did succeed in inserting language that says any new funding formula should recognize the different costs in educating students with different levels of needs.
He also inserted language reflecting recent Kansas Supreme Court rulings that say funding should be equitable, "so that districts have reasonably equal access to substantially similar educational opportunity through similar tax effort."