K-12 education leaders fear that 2 legislative proposals could lead to a school funding fight | News, Sports, Jobs

photo by: Meeting screenshot/Lawrence school baord

Kansas State Board of Education member Ann Mah speaks to the Lawrence school board on Monday, Feb. 8, 2021, about Kansas Legislature activity that could affect public education funding.

Public education leaders say two bills that state legislators are considering could harm the state’s school funding at a time when the COVID-19 pandemic is already punching holes in school districts’ budgets.

One of the bills is a tax reform plan that could lower the state’s revenue by more than a billion dollars over three years, according to the Associated Press. The other one would greatly expand a program that provides tax breaks to organizations that sponsor scholarships for private schools. At a recent Lawrence school board meeting, local education leaders Shannon Kimball and Ann Mah said that if these bills became law, they would give legislators ways to justify cutting school funding.

That could be especially harmful as schools attempt to recover from the financial ramifications of COVID-19, Kimball and Mah said. The Lawrence district is already facing an estimated $1 million shortfall because of an enrollment decline, as the Journal-World previously reported.

Public education funding has long been a flashpoint at the Kansas Statehouse — one that education leaders fear could flare up again given the right combination of budget problems.

Although the state constitution mandates that the Legislature provide “adequate and equitable” funding to public education, the Kansas Supreme Court ruled several times over the past decade that lawmakers weren’t meeting those standards. In 2019, the court found the state’s current education funding formula to be constitutional. But Kimball, who is on the Lawrence school board and also previously served as the president of the Kansas Association of School Boards, said that didn’t mean the fight for public school funding was over.

“There are several pieces of legislation that I think could ultimately negatively impact the ability of the Legislature to live up to its responsibility to fully fund public schools,” Kimball told the Journal-World recently.

Kimball, who also serves on Gov. Laura Kelly’s Council on Tax Reform, said her immediate concern is a tax cut bill favored by some Republican lawmakers. As The Associated Press reported, the bill could result in a drop in about $1.3 billion in revenue over three years. It’s been compared by some lawmakers to the tax cuts enacted under former Gov. Sam Brownback, which were largely repealed in 2017 following massive, persistent budget shortfalls. The Kansas Senate approved the bill this past week, sending it to the House of Representatives for consideration.

Mah, who represents Lawrence on the Kansas State Board of Education, said the tax cut proposal was especially ill-advised in the middle of a pandemic.

“It’s just not a year we can afford that,” she said. “You know who will pay the price when revenues go in the hole.”

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If state revenues plummet again, Kimball said K-12 education funding would likely be a target for cuts because it makes up more than half of the state’s general fund spending. And she and Mah also feared that other forces in the K-12 education landscape could help lawmakers justify cuts to public schools.

One of those forces is federal relief money.

Mah told the Lawrence school board that Kansas’ public schools were recently allocated about $330 million from the federal government’s Elementary and Secondary School Emergency Relief grant program, also known as ESSER, which is part of the federal CARES Act coronavirus relief plan. The Lawrence school district said it would be receiving about $6.2 million of that funding.

The federal money comes with some restrictions on how it can be used. It can’t be used to patch holes in districts’ general funds — it can only be spent on projects related to conducting education during the COVID-19 pandemic. For example, Lawrence schools spokeswoman Julie Boyle said the district might use the money to fund its proposed summer learning program, as well as to purchase new ventilation systems to help prevent transmission of COVID-19 in classrooms.

However, Mah said lawmakers might not see it that way. She said she feared that legislators might argue that the state could afford to reduce its school funding because schools were getting extra help from the federal government.

Kimball echoed Mah’s concerns, and she said the federal dollars should be used to “supplement, not supplant” existing education funding.

“We have had extraordinary extra expenses because of the pandemic that we would not have had otherwise,” Kimball said. “It’s my understanding there are some legislators who really believe that because the federal government has given us this money, they don’t have an obligation to maintain state funding at the level they’ve been providing.”

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Kimball and Mah said there’s another proposal from the Statehouse that could help legislators justify funding cuts: a bill that would expand a tax credit program for private school scholarships.

The tax credit program already exists, and in its current form it gives tax breaks on donations that fund private school scholarships to at-risk students. As the program is currently structured, the only students it applies to are those who are eligible for free lunches and attend certain low-performing elementary schools — about 600 students statewide. But the bill would allow any students who are eligible for free or reduced lunch programs to apply — they could come from any school in the state. That would increase the number of students who were eligible to around 200,000, according to a Kansas Reflector report.

Senate Republicans argued that the bill was intended to provide more opportunities for children in need. But critics of the bill said it was an attempt to shift public funds to private institutions, and Kimball said it specifically looked like an excuse for making cuts to public schools.

“That is a backdoor way of siphoning money out of the general fund and then being able to say, ‘Sorry, we have to cut public school funding because we don’t have the funds available,” Kimball said.

Kimball said the bill — whose backers have referred to it as a “parent choice bill” — was problematic for more reasons than just funding. She said there were equity issues, too.

Specifically, Kimball said public schools are legally required to track students’ progress to make sure they’re providing an equitable education for all students, while private schools are not. Additionally, private schools can reject students, regardless of their educational needs, while public schools cannot.

“They get to screen out students,” Kimball said of private schools. “It’s not really ‘parent choice,’ it’s ‘private school choice.’ It’s private schools getting public tax dollars to be able to pick and choose which students they wish to serve.”

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As of right now, it’s not clear whether either of the bills — the tax cut plan or the changes to the private school scholarship program — will become law.

Kelly, the state’s Democratic governor, is able to veto the bills if she so chooses. If she does, Mah said that the Senate, with its significant Republican majority, might vote to override the veto.

But whether the House would vote to override is another matter. Mah said the Kansas House wasn’t as conservative, and that overriding a veto would be more difficult there.

“We have to hope we can sustain that veto by getting a few moderate, pro-education Republicans to come over and help us out,” Mah said.

— The Associated Press contributed to this report.

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