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What Kansas' New School Funding Formula Means for School Accountability

A fourth of Kansas' students aren't meeting basic reading and math standards and, in its sweeping condemnation of Kansas' school funding formula, the state's supreme court earlier this year said it's not enough for the legislature to just toss more money at the schools. Lawmakers must make sure the money boosts student achievement, too.

A new funding formula passed last week aims to do both things: In addition to providing schools with $285 million more in funds over the next two years (an amount those who brought a successful lawsuit against the old formula say is far too little), the revised formula includes plenty new accountabiltiy measures, too. 

Whether the formula passes muster with the state's supreme court has yet to be determined.  The court will hear the attorney general and plaintiff's arguments July 18.  

At the onset of Kansas' legislative session this year, the court decision, coupled with the Every Student Succeeds Act, also sparked a scramble to overhaul the state's accountability system. Many of the state's conservative legislators felt the local school districts misspent money on ineffective teaching and intervention strategies. Throughout the legislative session, vouchers, teacher pay and state takeover were all on the table. 

In the end, a plan in the works by Kansas' state board of education—called "Kansas CAN—prevailed. 

The plan consolidates the state's many accreditation systems and judges schools on kindergarten readiness, graduation rates and postsecondary education, among other things. The funding formula pays for all-day kindergarten starting next fall, adds $2 million in preschool aid for at-risk students, and another $2.5 million for professional development and a teacher mentor program. 

The legislature will now require the state board to pre-approve money set aside for poor students spending of state dollars.  The spending must be based on "research based" programs, a provision similar to the federal ESSA law. 

Schools that fail to meet the state's standards must undergo intervention, though what that intervention will look like hasn't been determined. 

The state will also expand its tax credit scholarship program so that individuals—in addition to corporations, as was previously allowed—can contribute to the plan. The state has had a tax credit program for several years but, despite having a $7 million cap, only $1 million had been contributed to the fund, Tallman said. Schools receiving money through the program must go through the same accreditation process as public schools do now.  

This week, lawyers for the state and for the four plaintiff districts filed briefs building their legal arguments for the showdown over the new formula before the state's high court. 

The state attorney general's office said in its brief that the new funding formula is "a dramatic, positive step for Kansas, its students, and its schools." But the plaintiffs' lawyers said  the funding formula "significantly underfunds K-12 public education—by all measures." They also argue that the new funding formula loosens up districts' ability to raise local funds so that poor districts would be at a disadvantage, effectively violating the equity judgement the court came down with last year.  

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