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Kansas Budget Overhaul Includes Changes to School Choice, Teacher Tenure Policies

After frenzied negotiations, the Kansas Legislature agreed to K-12 finance changes to satisfy a court ruling from last month that said the state's education funding was inequitable. Gov. Sam Brownback, a Republican, expressed his satisfaction with the budget changes and even said they exceeded what was required by the ruling in the Gannon v. State of Kansas case. But as part of the budgetary changes, conservatives also won new provisions that expand school choice while eliminating teachers' due-process rights. However, common-core opponents came up short when a proposal to block spending on the standards was stripped out of the final deal. 

The Gannon case required legislators to expand education funding by just under $130 million through both operating and capital budget increases, and eventually two proposals emerged from the House and Senate to deal with that increase. In addition to a per-pupil spending increase of $14 per student up to $3,852, the final deal that lawmakers struck includes a provision in both proposals: raising a cap on local tax increases. The idea of seeking these increases in "local option" budgets is to give districts additional funding beyond the state per-pupil funding levels, but voters have to approve of the additional local tax first. This cap will rise from a maximum of 31 percent of the state's per-pupil spending to 33 percent.

So a good portion of the increase in spending, while made possible by the change in the state law to allow for a larger cap, will actually come from local tax increases. Using the new per-pupil spending level from the state, a hike of two percentage points in the local-option budget cap would translate to a $77-per-student increase if districts used all of the new taxing authority at their disposal. CORRECTIONThe local-option budget would rely on a different, higher per-pupil spending figure, not the prior mark $3,852 set by the state that I mentioned earlier. The local-option figure that will be in effect for the 2014-15 and 2015-16 school years will increase from $4,433 $4,490. So districts can seek to tack on up to 33 percent of that latter amount to their total local funding. Under Kansas law, if districts are seeking more than 30 percent of the local base figure in additional funding, they need to hold an election. The absolute cap, election or not, is what rose from 31 to 33 percent in the deal lawmakers just struck. The actual impact would be an additional, $90-per-student maximum increase allowed to districts through that increase in the cap.

As I said in the beginning, several other education policy changes were tacked onto the school-finance bill. 

• The legislation creates a tax-credit scholarship program wherein private corporations can make donations to a program providing scholarships for low-income and special-education students to attend private schools.

• Teachers' due-process rights are eliminated, making it easier for schools to fire teachers.

• Teacher-licensing requirements would be eased for some classroom subjects.

A block on common-core spending that passed the state Senate, however, did not make it into the final school-finance package, according to the Kansas City Star. 

A lower court is still set to deal with the question of whether the state's school-funding system is inadequate. But it appears that after months of anticipation and a potential fight between the court and state legislature over K-12 funding authority, at least part of the issue has been settled, albeit with several controversial strings attached that aren't related to the Gannon case. 

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