Education funding bill overspends, fails to hold schools accountable

David DorseyEducation

The new K-12 education bill passed by the Kansas Legislature and sent to Governor Brownback for signature fails to hold schools accountable for improving student achievement and by failing to correct a math error, overspends by hundreds of millions going forward. Instead the law focuses on satisfying a fickle Supreme Court.

The law – SB 19 – is not “reasonably calculated” to meet Rose standards, as the Court has directed on more than one occasion. It is simply a resurrection of the 1992 bill that was replaced with block grant funding by the Legislature two years ago. In short, the bill throws a lot more money in the pot and addresses the at-risk problem with feckless language. The price tag for the new formula is estimated to be an increase of $293 million over the next two years with future funding increases tied to the consumer price index. The bulk of the increased funding comes from an increase in what is now termed BASE (base aid for student excellence) – previously known as BSAPP (base state aid per pupil).  BASE is set at $4,006 for next year and $4,128 for 2018-19 with future escalations tied to the consumer price index. As a comparison, BSAPP was $3,852 in 2014-15, the last year of the old 1992 law. (Note: as of this writing the dollar amounts from the various categories making up the increase were unavailable.)

The bill attempts to calculate BASE funding but a math error makes funding $140 million per year too high, and legislators declined to fix the error – preferring instead to allow citizens to be overtaxed.

Prior to passage of the final bill, the majority of the debate on the various iterations of the bill by both house and senate committees centered around at-risk funding. This was in direct response to the Supreme Court’s most recent ruling in the Gannon case. The legislative interpretation of the Court’s decision was that 25% of the students in Kansas are not being adequately educated. Therefore, the Legislature concluded the new law needed to address these at-risk students through both funding and programming. SB 19 includes an increase in at-risk weighting to 48.4% of the BASE, up from 45.6%. It also includes language that the money be spent on programs identified and approved the Kansas State Board of Education (KSBE) as “evidence based best practices.” There was also a stipulation for Legislative Post Audit (LPA) to perform a performance audit on the at-risk program in 2020. Regardless of these provisions, there is no evidence that these changes will improve the achievement of at-risk students. Unfortunately, there are no provisions in the new law either for incentives or consequences for school districts regarding improvement (or lack of) of students identified as at-risk. Clearly, the actions of the Legislature reveals the body is not serious about dealing with the at-risk issue; their actions were merely to satisfy the Court.

The good news is that changes to the tax credit scholarship program survived multiple attempts to sunset the law and the eligibility for tax credits for contributions to scholarship-granting non-profits was expanded to include individuals in addition to corporations. The downside is that participating schools will be have to meet state-sponsored accreditation requirements by 2020.

This is clearly a case of opportunity missed. What could have been a new finance law that was reasonably calculated to address student achievement, instead turned out to be nothing more than a game of how much more money could be given to schools with no accountability for improving outcomes or making efficient use of taxpayer money.

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