In early September the governor’s communications office issued a “Fellow Kansans” essay renewing the administration’s vigorous claim that everything associated with providing funding to the state’s K-12 public education system must count as money that affects children in the classrooms.
Instead, the essayist complains, $456 million of the $3.2 billion the state is currently funding for K-12 must go for debt service support, capital outlays and KPERS funding. These expenditures allegedly demonstrate the badness of the school funding system the governor and the Legislature replaced with block grants this spring.
A state supreme court appeal is pending that will determine if the block grant system will be implemented. In the time before that decision is reached, it’s worthwhile to examine the essay’s claims. They don’t elicit an outright shout of “Liar, liar, pants on fire,” but perhaps the famous Reagan versus Carter quip, “There you go again” works.
Currently Kansas law requires assistance to low property valuation districts with interest and principal payments (debt service) on their school bond issues. There’s a good chance most Republican legislators believe this probably only encourages voters in those poorer districts to think their kids deserve facilities that at least resemble what wealthier districts can afford.
Nevertheless, debt service support, like the true operating support money known as Base State Aid per Pupil, helps equalize resources for districts with low property tax resources. Without the support, a lot of rural, relatively economically underdeveloped communities would unquestionably have dated, down-at-the-heel facilities. Not exactly great environments for instruction or the sort of facilities likely to attract and hold the brightest young sparks in the teaching profession.
Capital outlay covers the physical stuff that goes into classrooms, auditoriums, libraries, cafeterias, bus barns and athletic facilities. Existing statutes requiring districts to segregate and account for capital outlays differently from operating funds, although a national standard of good accounting practices, are apparently bad for Kansas school children. Setting aside funds in this way leads to funding such things as that horrendous $47,000 grand piano that Kansas City’s Sumner Academy was called out for last February. When the purchase was disclosed, it seemed that some educational administrator soon would be headed for a beheading.
Critics, including the governor’s communications office, note that the price would pay a teacher’s salary and benefits for a year. It begs the response, “Yes. Then what happens the next year?” The piano has a half century of useful life. That is 50 years of enlightenment, transcendence and instruction for certainly hundreds if not thousands of school children, teachers, parents and community members at an amortized cost of less than $1,000 per year.
Statutes regarding the public pension system, KPERS, require that the state contributes to teacher pensions. The communications office views this as another unwarranted pigeon-holing of resources block grants would eliminate. Certainly, some will point out, education is a young person’s calling. It’s not the public’s or the state’s responsibility to create homesteaders in the state’s school districts. But where do these critics expect to find ambitious senior mentors, competent experienced administrators, and seasoned personnel who have seen the myriad problems and behaviors that children and parents manifest? Just how long does the current regime of short-term thinkers expect to keep competent, inspired and inspiring instructional personnel if the state’s legal dedication to its statutory pension obligation is repealed?
The punchline to the communications office essay was that block grants change the restrictions on state school support so that now it can be used to pay teachers — “the most important asset in any classroom.” But then, what happens next year?
Mark Peterson teaches political science at the college level in Topeka.