Redefining Public Education in Kansas

Revising the School Funding Formula

Governor Brownback and others want to revise the formula, calling it too complicated and unworkable.  In the governor’s words, “…we ought to just open the whole thing up. It’s just that the formula has grown very complex, convoluted (and) questionable. … you ought to open it up, redo it and sunset it in four years so you’re having a regular discussion about where half of your state general fund goes.”

I believe the formula is complex because what it is designed to accomplish is complex.  The authors of the school funding formula may not have had the Rose Standards in mind back in 1992 as they crafted and later refined the formula, but I believe the formula is in fact in harmony with the objective of the Rose Standards.  It is designed to direct the money to where it is most needed.  It sends extra funds to those school districts with student populations that are more difficult and therefore more expensive to educate.

It may be time to review the entire formula with a view to making it appropriate to today’s student population and to verify that the various weightings are valid.  But if folks attempt to revise the formula with an objective of simplifying and saving a great deal of money then we will have moved away from both equity and adequacy of funding… exactly the issues that got us embroiled in the court case in the first place.

Public Dollars for Private Education

Some legislators see an opportunity to implement policy reforms that involve diverting public funds toward private schools or home schooling.  In fact, the first step in that direction was taken with the education appropriation bill last spring.  It included provision for state subsidies of corporate scholarships for private education… a significant use of public funds in Kansas for the benefit of private education.  That provision was one of the primary reasons that I voted no on the bill.

But here is the thing: public education does not exist for the benefit of students or for the benefit of their parents.  It exists for the benefit of the social order.  Public schools were established in America to insure that future generations of citizens have an appreciation for democratic values, understand our common American heritage, and have the skills to be productive members of society.  It isn’t necessary for one to be a student or the parent of a student to benefit from public education.  Each of us benefits each and every day by the existence of a well-educated populace.

Some feel that public education is not the right choice for their child, for a variety of reasons, but often that reason has to do with religion.  Those individuals are certainly free to choose private alternatives but that choice does not entitle them to public funds for private schooling.

The following link is a very eloquent defense of public education from Pastor Vernon C. Tyson, a United Methodist preacher from Raleigh, North Carolina.  Though he wrote it concerning North Carolina public schools, it could just as easily have been written about Kansas schools.  The problems with NC vouchers and sending public money to private schools.

Wichita Eagle:  Education in Crosshairs

Capturing School District Reserve Funds

Some are suggesting that the state should raid school district reserve funds since there is a significant amount of money available there.  But there are problems with that logic.  Some of those funds never came from the state, but were from local sources or the federal government.  The state obviously has no right to those funds.  And the funds that did come from the state were distributed through the school funding formula, designed to get the dollars where the need is greatest.  If the state were to now reclaim those funds, it would raise serious questions with regard to both equity and adequacy of funding, once again raising the specter of future lawsuits.

Aside from the question of legality, there is the practical effect that sweeping these funds would have.  We would be training every school district in Kansas to spend every dollar we send them with the knowledge that if they don’t we will take it back.  We would be rewarding those districts who spent every last dollar since they would have no reserves to recapture.  We would also be penalizing those districts who were fiscally prudent and responsible, spending only what was necessary and saving the rest for unforeseen contingencies.  That can’t be sound fiscal policy, and it amazes me that anyone thinks that is a good idea.

There are several valid reasons that schools carry healthy reserve balances at the end of the fiscal year on June 30.

  1. June 30 is traditionally the end of one school year cycle and the start of another. Many of the purchases for the coming school year are made in July and August so school districts need to have adequate reserves available to cover those purchases.
  2. 2. Districts often build up reserves in anticipation of an upcoming capital purchase such as a new school bus, a new boiler, or other remodel project.
  3. 3. Carrying some cash in reserve is a sound, conservative principle for any individual or entity, whether public or private. During my service on the boards of several state and national level livestock associations we were repeatedly advised that trade associations should carry reserves that equal 50% of annual revenues. The appropriate figure may be somewhat different for school districts but there is no doubt they need significant money in reserve. Part of that is due to the uncertain nature of state aid to schools. During the recent recession the state was experiencing cash flow problems, and frequently was late in making scheduled payments to schools. Given the tight budget situation the state is now facing, I expect those cash flow issues to again be a problem. When that happens the schools will need to rely on their cash reserves to get by until the state check shows up in the mailbox.

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