Happy New Year! I hope you and your family had a joyous Christmas season!
We are now just a week away from the first day of the 2015 Legislative Session, which will be filled with much debate over the budget, taxes, and of course, education spending. After the elections in November, the makeup of your elected officials will only be slightly altered from last year.
Monday, January 12, will bring the inauguration for Governor Sam Brownback and Lt. Governor Jeff Colyer to a second term, in addition to Secretary of State Kris Kobach, Attorney General Derek Schmidt, State Treasurer Ron Estes, and new Insurance Commissioner Ken Selzer. In the Kansas House, out of the 125 representatives, 97 are Republicans, up from 93 last year. We won't know the percentage of conservatives in the House until there is a relevant vote.
The Kansas Senate, which has two new members, stays at 32 Republicans and 8 Democrats, and two-thirds majority of the Senate is conservative. I look forward to working with all my colleagues as we work to meet the significant challenges that face us when we begin our work immediately following the inaugural festivities.
I would like to have your attention to an important matter - in the wake of last year's vote on education allowing an increase in the LOB to 33% of state financial aid, five Johnson County-based school districts - including Shawnee Mission and De Soto - have already increased your property taxes through your local school board.
Now the school districts will be conducting a mail ballot election asking the voters permission to keep the property tax increase, as required by law. This 33% threshold and voter input was made possible by Republican action in last year's legislature and signed into law by Governor Brownback.
In addition, Shawnee Mission will be conducting a separate vote on a bond initiative to fund a host of projects, including buzz-in security systems, furniture and media centers, cameras, air conditioning, the rebuilding of five elementary schools and the construction of an aquatics center which would include a 50-meter competition pool.
The ballots for these elections will be mailed on Wednesday, January 7th, and you will have until noon on Tuesday, January 27th to turn yours in.
In the middle of this upcoming mail-ballot election on schools and the opening of the legislative session in which education funding was already going to be a hot topic, a three-judge panel of the Shawnee County District Court ruled that Kansas public school funding is inadequate. You may recall that last year, the Kansas Legislature was awaiting a decision on education spending by the Kansas Supreme Court, and we may be in line for a repeat performance this year.
If the Shawnee District Court decision is fully upheld by the Kansas Supreme Court and then implemented by the Legislature, it would result in a massive increase in spending, thereby necessitating massive tax hikes. Of course, the Kansas Supreme Court may opt for a much more limited ruling - we will have to wait and see.
All of this discussion about education at the state level, local level and even in our courts is a healthy one - not simply to rehash the age-old debates about funding levels, but to introduce a more thorough discussion about education overall in Kansas. We need to ask questions such as:
- Are school districts providing adequate sunshine to their spending?
- What is the level of spending on administration in Kansas?
- How are our education standards compared to other states?
- Are we fostering or stifling innovation?
- Are our charter school laws strong or do they need improvement?
- Are there private alternatives that provide Kansas parents an adequate choice?
- How is Kansas at evaluating our teachers, and furthermore, how are we at retaining the good teachers and eliminating the bad ones?
Each of these questions deserves to be examined, and so far, the results aren't encouraging. A recent report by ALEC indicates that Kansas grades mediocre to poor on each of those issues - all which impact the quality of education in our state.
The current mishmash of court rulings and legislative action seems to be centered on an argument that funding levels are the be-all and end-all of education outcomes. In truth, the Kansas Legislature currently only controls the purse - it does not control the implementation of education in our state, and it does not control curriculum, etc. This is typically under the purview of the local school board and the Kansas State School Board.
While funding levels and more importantly, funding formulas, are certainly part of the equation, when we move beyond that into a broader discussion about the education system overall, we can achieve better solutions for the education of our kids.
In our discussions, we need to have a mindset that first and foremost keeps the education of children with their parents in control at the forefront, not merely school systems and budget requests.
Of course, the funding will always be an important part of the discussion and as many of us in the Johnson County delegation have been arguing for years, we need a new funding formula that does away with a confusing array of weightings which pit rural against suburban and special needs kids against regular students. The current environment of the courts attempting to dictate funding of a failed formula is not sustainable.
So before you cast your mail ballots and as you weigh what the media tells you during the upcoming school finance debate, I encourage you to examine all the facts involving K-12 education in Kansas.
Of course, K-12 school funding is just one aspect to the upcoming legislative session, but it is one that will dominate the discussion. As you can see at this link, on page 10 and 14, Kansas spends over 63% pf the state budget on education, with more than 50% towards K-12.
I look forward to updating you on additional issues in next week's edition.