By Dave Trabert, Kansas Policy Institute.
“Deceived” is a strong word but there’s no polite way to describe the way parents and teachers are being misled about the nature of school funding in Kansas. Some school boards, administrators, media and even some legislators are saying that state support of public schools is at 1992 levels; others are just saying state aid is declining next year. None of that is true.
State support is increasing by $86 million next year, and that’s on top of a $261 million increase this year. Kansas Legislative Research reports that state spending on public schools was $2.710 billion last year; this year it is $2.971 billion and next year’s budget is $3.057 billion. And by the way, next year’s spending will be more than twice what it was in 1992.
Some pieces of state funding are slightly declining next year because others are growing more than the overall funding increase. According to the school finance formula, amounts required for Special Education, pension payments and the state’s portion of local bond payments are deducted from total aid; the remaining balance is then distributed according to the formula on a weighted per-pupil basis. Since the increases in those “off the top” items are greater than the $86 million increase in total state aid, a reduction in base state aid was necessary. Still, total aid from state, federal and local sources will still be about $12,000 per pupil next year, which would be a 5 percent reduction since FY 2009. (Federal aid is returning to pre-stimulus levels but local aid should be slightly higher.)
This minor reduction over the last three years is caused by the worst recession this state has seen in decades. We’ve lost over 70,000 private sector jobs in the last three years and average annual employment in 2010 was less than in 1998. Based on the change in income tax receipts, corporate earnings plummeted 49 percent between 2007 and 2010. The resources to insulate public schools from economic reality simply aren’t available.
Schools have a number of alternatives to avoid changes that impact classrooms. Inflation increased 10.4 percent between 2005 and 2010 but per-pupil operating costs outside the classroom jumped 17.7 percent. That’s $112 million above inflation.
Also, most districts didn’t spend all of the revenue they received over the last five years; cash reserves in current operating funds (not counting capital and bond payments) increased by $317 million and most of that money is state and local tax dollars that were intended to operate schools. Many districts claimed they couldn’t use those unspent aid dollars because some of it was restricted.
But there’s no question now that they can spend the money. A new law permits the transfer of unencumbered carryover cash balances from a group of twelve funds to be used for any operating purpose. There are no restrictions on how the money can be used and most districts have three or four times the amount needed to offset the change in base state aid per pupil.
Parents and teachers deserve the truth. State support of public schools is rising next year and districts have options to avoid direct classroom impacts. We hope they choose to do so.
Dave Trabert is president of the Kansas Policy Institute.