TOPEKA, Kansas — A key Republican legislator said Wednesday she was hopeful two days of education policy meetings will give her colleagues some sense of direction for the 2014 session.
Rep. Kasha Kelley, chairwoman of the House Education Committee, said the meetings in Topeka were designed to provide legislators with information about school funding and student achievement. Kelley said she had no preconceived notion of what policy may be developed as a result of the meetings.
"I'm not one to rally the troops," Kelley said. "I hope that what comes out of this is a greater focus on our children."
The hearings included presentations on school finance formulas used across the county and how Kansas compared to surrounding states. Kansas spends more than $3 billion annually on K-12 education, distributed through a formula that has been in place since 1992.
That system was born out of litigation filed against the state by school districts who claimed the state's distribution of funds was unconstitutional and that there were wide variances in funding and local taxing levels that lacked a rational basis.
The new formula starts with a base state aid per pupil, currently $3,838 per student, with additional funds provided based on school district enrollment and demographics.
However, the level of state revenues used to fund the formula is again under legal attack. The Kansas Supreme Court heard an appeal in October in a case filed in 2010 by school districts that claim the state failed to fulfill funding promises made in 2006 — the last time education funding was decided by the courts.
Kelley said education funding would be a major focus of the 2014 legislative session that starts in January as legislators digest the latest court ruling.
"A lot of questions are long-standing questions. I think they want to flush out the answers to those questions," she said of legislators.
The committee was hearing from an official from the Kansas Association of School Boards, legislative staff and a researcher from the Friedman Foundation in Indiana, which supports expansion of school choice options. Legislators also were to hear from an analyst from the Kansas Policy Institute, a free-market think tank based in Wichita.
Kelley said officials with the Kansas Department of Education were invited to speak but there were scheduling conflicts that prevented Commissioner Diane DeBacker and others from testifying.
Mark Tallman, who will present testimony Thursday, said the information presented to the committee Wednesday put Kansas schools in good light. He said he expected changes in how schools are funded and what results that produces will dominate discussion in 2014.
"Legislators are always looking at funding problems. If the court orders them to do something else, they want to be prepared with options," Tallman said.