It’s less than two months before the start of the 2020 Legislative Session on Jan. 13. From Thanksgiving to the KASB Convention to Christmas and New Year’s Day, that will go fast. School leaders are encouraged to determine district priorities and discuss them with legislators before the session. Here are some of the top education issues on the horizon, and links to more information. Please contact KASB if we can assist in any way.
Gannon school finance case. After years of trial arguments, appeals, legislative action and judicial response, the Kansas Supreme Court last summer accepted the plan to restore general school funding to 2009 levels, adjusted for inflation, by 2023. The court retained jurisdiction to ensure the Legislature follows through with funding over the next four years.
Many legislators said they were skeptical of that plan. Official revenue estimates released last April and projections of school funding and other costs showed the state general fund heading for a $400-$500 million deficit by 2023. But new revenue estimates posted this month added $520 million in expected tax income over current year and next year (2021).
The official revenue estimates do not extend to 2022 and 2023, but assumptions for future growth based on current trends should largely close the gap. Legislative research and fiscal staff are working on a new “profile” for the state budget for those years.
Estimates of future revenue are just that – estimates. Actual revenues could be lower if the state or national economy falter or could be higher than expected, as they have been in recent years. At this point, funding for the education plan looks far more stable than it did earlier this year.
School finance savings. Higher state revenue estimates are not the only good news for the state. Legislative, budget division and Department of Education staff also released new estimates that reduce the expected cost of the school finance plan, by about $60 million over two years. Most of the savings are due to lower-than-expected new facilities weighting and enrollment.
The Kansas State Board of Education has proposed shifting those savings to special education state aid. Under state law, special education is supposed to be at 92 percent of the excess cost formula (the cost of special education services in “excess” of what it would cost to educate students in regular education). But funding is actually only at 75 percent and expected to drop below 70 percent by 2022. Shorting the special education formula requires larger transfers from regular education programs.
At-Risk Funding. All districts receive “at-risk” funding to help low performing students, based on the number of students eligible for free meals. Districts with at least 35 percent of students eligible for free meals – or at least 35 percent in an individual school – receive an additional “high density at-risk” weighting, providing over $50 million in funding statewide. However, the Legislature placed a “sunset” on that weighting, which means it must vote this session whether to extend the program. Ending the program, which supports schools with the highest number of low-income students, would likely be quickly challenged in court, based on the close correlation between income and student performance.
The Legislature will also receive a December 9 Legislative Post Audit report on at-risk funding that could raise questions about how at-risk dollars are spent.
Accountability. As districts receive additional funding, expect legislators to focus on how those dollars are being spent and the impact on students. After all, the Gannon case was based on too many students performing below expectations and that more money would make a difference.
Some important context: based on the Legislature’s own studies, school funding had fallen more than $500 million behind inflation from 2009 to 2017. The Legislature’s new funding plan started in 2018, but due to on-going inflation, school budgets are not expected to reach 2009 levels until 2023.
Further, most school achievement measures are lagging indicators. State assessments and national tests reported this fall were given last Spring (2019), testing students after just one full year of higher funding (2018) and half of a second year. ACT scores released this year, 2019, include a higher percentage of students who took the test as juniors in 2018, with less than one full year of higher funding.
Given eight years of funding not keeping up with inflation, it’s not surprising that test scores have either continued to decline (National Assessment of Educational Progress, ACT) or remain flat (state assessments). But many legislators, especially those who were skeptical that additional funding would help, will want to know how districts are using the money, what impact additional funds are having on student achievement or how long it will take.
Safety and Student Issues. A statewide commission has been studying ways to address bullying, with a report due to the State Board in December that will likely draw legislative attention. Lawmakers are expected to consider responses to the vaping or e-cigarette crisis, such as raising the age to purchase tobacco and nicotine products, a state ban on vaping in schools and public buildings, flavor bans and higher taxes. State programs to support mental health and school safety will also be reviewed.
Other Issues. Despite budget concerns, higher revenues (and an impending general election next fall) will create pressure to cut taxes, such as state taxes impacted by federal changes, the sales tax on food, and property taxes. There will also be calls to increase funding for other programs that have received less support as the Legislature dealt with past tax cuts, budget deficits and the Gannon case. These include higher education, early childhood programs, social services, ending transfers from the state highway fund to the support the general fund and developing a new state transportation plan.
Another major issue, also with budget implications, is expanding Medicaid, a key goal of Governor Laura Kelly and passed last session by the House. Some Senators are crafting an alternative expansion plan, some support the House bill, and some oppose any expansion.
Finally, anti-abortion advocates are pushing a for constitutional amendment to reverse the Kansas Supreme Court’s decision that the Kansas constitution includes a right to abortion. That decision – and other controversial rulings such as school finance – will also likely result in proposals to change how Supreme Court justices are appointed, from the current system using a nominating committee to submit names to the Governor, to appointment by the Governor and Senate confirmation. Yet another proposal would reverse a court decision concerning limits on non-economic damages in civil cases. Changing the constitution requires a two-thirds vote of both the House and Senate and approval by a majority of voters in a general or special election.