A proposal to drive student achievement AND lower property taxes statewide was deemed “dead on arrival” by a state legislator who seems uninterested in the plight of low income children who are two to three years’ worth of learning behind their more affluent peers. Senator Laura Kelly (D-Topeka) told KCUR Radio that she and other legislators are working on a new school funding plan as an alternative to HB 2741 introduced in March. She said that HB 2741 would be “dead on arrival” if it resurfaced in January because it would increase property taxes statewide.
But that’s not true. Spreadsheets distributed by the bill’s authors, Senator Steve Abrams (R-Arkansas City) and Rep. Ron Highland (R-Wamego), show that property taxes would decline at least $49 million or as much as $113 million, depending upon how many districts implemented an optional 2 mills for extracurricular activities. Even if every district enacted the extra 2 mills, residents of 201 school districts would still see a net property tax decline. The Abrams/Highland plan does allow districts to ask voters to approve more property tax for ‘extras’ or to allow them to continue to operate inefficiently, but the bill itself delivers a statewide property tax reduction.
We shared the facts with KCUR and they published a follow-up story with some of the information we provided, but they did so in a way that still provided cover to the Senator’s inaccurate statement, made factual errors and substituted their opinion for fact.
So why would Senator Kelly not be honest about a property tax reduction? The answer may lie in the conflicting interests of what she dubs “the conservative plan” and the one she is developing with Democrats and moderate Republicans. She told KCUR that her group went through the old formula “…and either left it as it was if we thought we could get enough votes for it. Or tweaked it if we thought we needed to do that to bring on some folks to vote for it.” The Kelly plan either gives no consideration to whether the old plan was producing acceptable outcomes or its designers find current outcomes to be acceptable. And since they are just tweaking the old formula, the Kelly plan also fails to hold school districts accountable for improving outcomes or making efficient use of taxpayer money.
The Abrams/Highland plan takes a quite different approach. It bases funding on a data-driven model that identifies efficient spending to reach specific achievement levels, rewards districts that exceed certain achievement goals, eliminates the argument over equitable funding by providing adequacy funding entirely through the state and actually reduces property taxes.
Kansans overwhelmingly believe the new formula should include efficiency requirements (73 percent vs. 20 percent), so a plan that meets that expectation, eliminates the equity fight and reduces property taxes could be pretty appealing. But school districts, unions and their friends in the legislature recoil with horror at the mention of efficiency and accountability, so it makes sense that they’d try scare people off with false claims about property tax increases.
By the way, here are some of the outcomes that Senator Kelly and friends either find acceptable or not worthy of even considering:
- Less than a quarter of low income students are Proficient in Reading and Math (NAEP)
- Barely half of the more affluent students are Proficient in Reading and Math (NAEP)
- Only 32% are college-ready in English, Reading, Math and Science (ACT)
- Less than 20% of low income 10th graders are on track to be college-ready in Math and English Language Arts (state assessment)
- Less than 41% of more affluent 10th graders are on track to be college-ready in Math and English Language Arts (state assessment)
Step #1 in resolving the education crisis is accepting that it is one of achievement, not money. Step #2 is understanding ‘just spend more’ won’t improve outcomes; even Governor Kathleen Sebelius admitted “We cannot spend our way to excellence.”[i] And Step #3 is understanding that just ‘tweaking’ the system that produced these results is a political maneuver that will condemn more generations of students to unacceptably low achievement and low economic expectations.
[i] 2006 inaugural address, speaking about school funding
photo of Senator Kelly from cjonline.com