Zahava Stadler: A Better way on Kansas school funding

Zahava Stadler is the policy manager at EdBuild.

Last week, the Kansas Supreme Court struck down Senate Bill 19, the Legislature’s hurried attempt to rewrite the state’s school funding formula at the end of the last session. The justices found that the new system was both inadequate and inequitable, and therefore doubly unconstitutional. Now the Legislature has until June 30 to put in place a system that will pass legal muster.

 

With nearly nine months until the new deadline, the Legislature has a new opportunity to do right by the state’s nearly 500,000 schoolchildren. EdBuild, a nonprofit organization focused on education finance policy, has been following this case closely. We would like to offer a modest proposal for some best practices that the Legislature should consider as it revisits school funding:

1. Make sure that the state’s 245,000 low-income students get the support they need.

SB 19 included a generous bump in funding for each low-income student, which is a big step in the right direction. But it has two serious shortcomings. First, it assumes that each district has at least 10 percent of its students in poverty. This means even districts serving zero low-income students capture some of this money. But this undermines the goal of the program by sending money where it isn’t needed.

More importantly, this provision ties the funding to data collected for the National School Lunch Program – data that is becoming less and less reliable because of recent changes to how students qualify for subsidized meals. If the state doesn’t improve this policy, it’ll find that the money isn’t getting to the students who need it. If the goal is to target funding to the students who need it most, the state should base this funding on a better data source, like existing records of whether students receive food stamps or support from other benefit programs.

2. Simplify and streamline special education aid.

The current system of funding special education in Kansas is a reimbursement system, where the state uses a complex process to figure out how much more districts are spending on special education students than non-disabled students across the state, and then gives districts a percentage of that amount to defray their costs. This approach is complicated and not particularly transparent. But most importantly, it’s driven by what districts happen to spend on special education, not by what students actually need.

Kansas should consider funding special education the same way the state supports low-income and bilingual students: by using a set of weights, or multipliers applied to the general per-pupil funding amount. In this type of weighted system, the state can provide funding for each special education student in an amount tailored to her diagnosis or to the services in her education plan. This would do a far better job of matching state dollars to student needs.

3. Address the economies-of-scale challenges that districts actually face.

Under the guise of supporting districts experiencing changes in enrollment, SB 19 includes funding for everything but the kitchen sink: low enrollment, high enrollment and two different kinds of support for declining enrollment. Under this scheme, literally every district in the state is entitled to extra money, which raises the question of whether the money is really “extra” in any meaningful sense. However, there is a good idea buried in the bill: The Legislature proposes to study replacing these allocations with a funding weight for sparsity (that is, districts with few students per square mile) by June 2018.

Sparse and rural districts face genuine challenges related to transportation, service provision and workforce quality. The Supreme Court has asked the Legislature to rewrite the formula by June, which is when it planned to study sparsity weighting anyway. Now is the time to seriously consider replacing this laundry list of enrollment weights with one for sparse districts.

Over the next nine months, we hope to see a better policy take shape, one that equitably serves all the state’s students. Kansas legislators are, no doubt, weary of school funding debates. But they have a responsibility to get this right – not just a constitutional responsibility, but a moral duty to Kansas’ children.

Zahava Stadler is the policy manager at EdBuild.

 

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