TOPEKA, Kan. — Kansas would strip its local school districts of their power to levy taxes and have the state raise offsetting revenues to ensure that education funding doesn’t favor wealthy areas under a plan outlined Wednesday by a group of school administrators.
The proposal represents a radical departure from the state’s long-standing policy of allowing local school districts to impose property taxes to supplement the state’s aid. Instead, Kansas would set a uniform statewide tax to fund schools, with those revenues and existing state dollars meant to cover districts’ operating costs and provide extra funds for local initiatives.
Kansas has been in and out of lawsuits over education funding for decades, and a key issue has been whether its school finance system allows poor districts to keep up with wealthier ones. The Republican-controlled Legislature expects to write a new school funding formula next year.
About 30 school administrators from across the state have been working on their plan for more than a year, and they unveiled its outlines during a forum sponsored by their state association and the Kansas Association of School Boards. They’re still fleshing out the details and solicited opinions from about 150 education officials who attended the event.
While Kansas has long allowed local districts to set their own taxes, over the past two decades, it has set limits so poor districts don’t fall too far behind in the programs they offer students. And about 11 percent of the state’s $4.1 billion in annual aid to its 286 school districts — $467 million — goes to poorer districts to offset the advantages wealthier ones have in raising local revenues.
Jim Freeman, the Wichita school district’s retired chief financial officer, said having the state raise and distribute all the revenues for schools “eliminates the need for equalization” and makes school funding simpler.
“This is just a concept we think needs to have some discussion,” Freeman said after presenting the plan to the forum.
But local control of schools has been a cherished idea in Kansas, and lawmakers in wealthy — and politically powerful — Kansas City suburbs in Johnson County have sought looser and even no limits on local taxes. Todd White, the superintendent of the affluent, 22,500-student Blue Valley district there, said the plan is going to take more study and discussion.
“It’s a framework,” he said. “That’s the start of a discussion.”
The school administrators outlined their plan shortly before GOP Gov. Sam Brownback had a Statehouse news conference to call on educators, parents and other interested parties to submit their opinions and ideas on school funding issues to his office by Nov. 30.
He declined to comment on the specifics of the administrators’ plan but added, “The idea of that being floated — good. That’s the sort of discussion thing that we ought to have.”
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