On Jan. 26, Governor Sam Brownback proposed to the state Senate a bill that aims to completely rework the way state education is funded. When the recession hit in 2007, the state tightened its belt and started making cuts, and the amount of money allocated for Kansas education plummeted. Districts statewide have felt the effects of the decrease in funds, and the Shawnee Mission School District is no exception.“There are almost 300 school districts in Kansas,” Principal Karl Krawitz said. “And a year ago Shawnee Mission was fourth from the bottom of money received. The current formula that’s in place, it doesn’t help Shawnee Mission at all.”
Shawnee Mission’s lack of funding has become increasingly noticeable to patrons throughout the last year. Last semester, students watched and often protested as Mission Valley Middle School was closed and fellow Lancers suddenly became Raiders and Indians due to budget cuts. The same cuts have caused class sizes at East to grow to 30 students a class, and teachers are having to take on heavier workloads without any change to their salaries.
Dr. Krawitz hopes that Brownback’s new bill will solve these problems. The bill proposes that the state do away with its current formula for school funding, replacing it with a program that will increase spending across the state and give each district the freedom to raise money locally for its own budget needs.
The first change it would make is the amount of money spent per student. Since 2004, the amount spent on each Kansas student has dropped from $4,492 to $3,780. Brownback’s proposition will require the state to raise the amount spent per student back to $4,492 by the 2013-2014 school year. The second change allows local governments to raise taxes to fund education. Craig Denny, the SMSD Board President, has been hearing this idea for years, and believes it can solve many of the state’s school funding problems.
“I had so many patrons coming to me saying, ‘Please, don’t cut this program, we’d be happy to pay more,’” Denny said. “I had to tell them that we couldn’t, that we weren’t allowed to… People here will pay for it, so let them.”
Brownback’s proposition would do exactly that. The bill allows districts to levy local taxes to raise money for their district. A percentage of the money raised will be given to the state education budget, which will in turn spread the money evenly throughout state schools. The rest of the money can be spent freely on education by the district that raised the funds. Denny believes that this will bring in additional money to the Johnson County area, and help the district to avoid future budget cuts and job losses.
The chairman of the Kansas Board of Education, Dave Dennis, agrees that the bill would give the Shawnee Mission School District more funds, but he cites this as one of the Board’s concerns. The state of Kansas strives to provide statewide equality in education, Dennis said, and the new bill would not allow that standard of equality to be continued.
“If you’re living up around the Kansas City area, by raising your property tax one mill (one tenth of a cent) you can raise millions of dollars,” Dennis said. “But in Western Kansas you’d only raise a couple thousand dollars. Rich school districts can give a Cadillac version of an education, while poorer districts could only give students a Model T version.”
But Dr. Krawitz and Denny say that statewide education is already unequal. They both cite the fact that larger, wealthier school districts such as Shawnee Mission are falling into the bottom 10 percent of money received. Dr. Krawitz says that SM East struggles with major inequality in special education funding. He said that the state education budget guarantees to pay for 75 percent of special education costs, yet SMSD receives only 67 percent funding from the state. While SMSD has to find a way to pay for that extra eight percent Dr. Krawitz said, other districts are being given over 200 percent of their special education costs in funding from the state. The state attributes these extra funds to the higher poverty levels and lower test scores in other districts, but Dr. Krawitz still believes they are unjust.
“You know, we can’t spend as much on special education students at East,” Dr. Krawitz said. “But in other districts, they might be spending two and a half times what we’re spending. Is that fair? No.”
Dr. Krawitz also worries about the quality of education that East and SMSD can offer if budget reforms are not made. He notes that, since he became principal at SM East four years ago, the average core class sizes have grown from 20 to 30. The number of teachers teaching six periods instead of five has also increased dramatically. When Dr. Krawitz first came to East, only nine or ten teachers taught the extra period, but currently 44 teachers have had to add the sixth period. Dr. Krawitz wishes for more funding so that the teacher-to-student ratio can drop back to its original place, and he believes that the new bill is the best available solution.
The state Senate and House of Representatives are now in the middle of a 90 day session of reviewing and revising the bill. During this time, Dennis said, the bill could be altered to a point of being “unrecognizable”, or be vetoed completely. Despite general SMSD and Johnson County support, Dr. Krawitz is not optimistic about the bill’s chances of surviving this session.
“There is practically no support,” Dr. Krawitz said. “So who knows where we’re going to end up after this session.”
Dennis agrees that the future of this proposition is undecided. The state Board of Education has not even been able to agree on which side to take, he said, so the outcome of the session is impossible to predict.
“Will there be something at the end? Yes,” Dennis said. “Is there a possibility of the formula we have right now being kept? Certainly. Could the Governor’s bill be passed? Possibly. It could be anything right now. It’s gonna be an interesting session, and everyone needs to keep an eye on it.”