Students walking toward a school
(File photo) Students enter Wichita East High School. (Alex Unruh/The Beacon)

Kansas’ K-12 school funding strategy has been shaped by lengthy court battles over whether the state provides enough money to adequately educate all students. 

The result is a system that takes into account school size and numbers of bilingual and “at-risk” students, among other factors, when distributing funds to schools. 

As a new school year gets underway, the state’s associations of school boards and superintendents say they’re largely satisfied with school funding in Kansas, though there are some concerns with funding for special education, transportation and schools with a high proportion of at-risk students. 

“Well-distributed” funding allows districts to meet kids’ individual needs through resources such as career and technical education programs and specialized courses with smaller class sizes, said G.A. Buie, executive director of the Kansas School Superintendents’ Association

But public schools also have to persuade Kansans that continued investment is worthwhile, amid questions from some lawmakers and policy groups about whether increased funding has improved student achievement quickly enough. 

“If we were a business we could just build more widgets and sell more widgets,” Buie said. “Well, we don’t have the ability to raise anything or grow anything. And so school budgets lean heavily on voters and lean heavily on (the) legislature to support them in an adequate and appropriate way.” 

What makes an adequate and equitable system

Kansas officials and lawmakers considered research and data when designing a school finance system, said Bruce Baker, a professor and chair of the department of teaching and learning at the University of Miami School of Education and Human Development.

Much of Baker’s research has focused on school funding, including whether it matters for student achievement (he says it does) and what constitutes adequate and equitable funding. 

He’s particularly familiar with Kansas, having taught at the University of Kansas from 1997 to 2008, has been involved with school finance reform discussions in both Kansas and Missouri, and recently published a book, “School Finance and Education Equity: Lessons from Kansas.”

On a basic level, adequate funding means districts have enough resources to meet specific goals, such as students performing at the national average, while equity acknowledges some districts and students need more resources to meet those goals. 

For example, smaller districts typically need more funding per student because there are limits to how far expenses can be scaled down. Students who are learning English or come from low-income families might need additional services. 

Those factors are all built into Kansas’ formula. 

Dave Trabert, CEO of the Kansas Policy Institute, a think tank focused primarily on taxation and education — particularly promoting school “choice, competition and accountability” — said the focus should expand beyond the state formula. 

“I think the way (the formula) allocates money seems to be pretty standard,” he said. “But the formula isn’t the problem. It’s how local officials decide to spend money that results in there being a lot of winners and losers.”

Trabert said the legislature has tried to hold school districts accountable for spending money in ways that improve academic outcomes, especially for students who have fallen behind. But he said it’s too easy for districts to ignore legal requirements. 

Instead, he thinks districts should face more competition through increased school choice — such as charter schools and scholarships students can use outside their traditional public school district — and transparency measures that help parents understand how schools are doing in plain language. 

When “school choice” is in place, districts “have to compete to keep the students,” Trabert said. “And actually only a small percentage of students take advantage of those choice programs, but the fact that they can is what encourages schools to do better.”

How Kansas’ school funding system works 

Kansas’ state funding system starts with an amount of “base aid” that is granted for each student. 

Districts then receive additional funding through “weights” that take into account school size, transportation expenses, cost of living, students eligible for free meals (a common way to estimate poverty levels), students in career and technical education, and bilingual students.  

The state is also supposed to reimburse districts for 92% of special education costs. Funding hasn’t reached that level in recent years, said Mark Tallman, associate executive director for educational advocacy at the Kansas Association of School Boards.  

Buie said transportation costs are another frustration for some districts because state funding only covers students who live more than 2½ miles from their schools. 

Sometimes students who live closer also need transportation because they would have to cross a highway or travel roads with no sidewalks to walk to school, Buie said. “And so in those situations, the district is left to foot the bill.”

In addition to the “foundation” aid described above, districts can add a “local option budget” that can be no larger than 33% of the foundation aid. Districts with the highest property values fund their local option budgets entirely through local property taxes. The state contributes to districts with lower property values. 

This system caps local spending in districts with higher property wealth, even if residents would be willing to pay more property taxes.

Compared to other states, Kansas is one of the least dependent on local funds. According to 2021 data from the National Education Association, a prominent teachers union, Kansas has the nation’s fifth lowest percentage of local funding and the fourth highest percentage of state revenue. That’s a stark contrast to Missouri, which relies more on local funding than nearly all other states. 

While wealthier districts may be upset that their tax dollars are spread throughout the state, “I think it is a measure of success of the system that it is designed to at least try really hard to be somewhat equalized across the state so that a kid isn’t penalized for where they live,” said Leah Fliter, assistant executive director for advocacy and governmental relations at KASB.

Baker pointed to findings in the School Finance Indicators Database, run by the Albert Shanker Institute and Rutgers University Graduate School of Education, as a measure of whether Kansas’ formula has led to a progressive funding system. 

(“Progressive” in this case refers not to political leanings, but to a system where schools with higher need receive more funds.) 

In 2019, the latest data available, Kansas exceeded what Baker and his fellow researchers determined was the adequate level of funding to meet state averages for all but the poorest districts. He said the numbers are based on a statistical model that uses data on student characteristics, hiring costs and district size to calculate necessary funding levels, which are different in each state. 

Kansas likely falls short for the poorest districts because no matter the political makeup of a state, “it’s hard to get sharply redistributive school finance policy,” Baker said. “You’re actually more likely to get them to float the whole system up and still have it be relatively even,” he said, rather than create a “progressive” system.

Tallman said some of the highest-poverty schools still aren’t funded to recommended levels, but that all states have struggled to eliminate disparities for the most at-risk children. 

“Everyone’s working on it, but the highest spending states or — put it the other way — the states with more vouchers and school choice … everybody continues to have these gaps,” he said. 

The history and impact of Kansas school funding

Kansas’ current system emerged from decades of lawsuits and court intervention

Tallman said Kansas’ recent school funding history can be summed up as a period of generally increasing funding until the recession in 2009, eight years where funding fell behind inflation, and then a six-year period of funding recovery, complicated by the COVID-19 pandemic. 

“During the 2000s, basically every measure from test scores to graduation rates” was rising, he said. “Within several years of the funding cuts, some of those, at least, began falling … Many critics are very impatient to see the results of increased funding. We think it’s important to understand how we’re coming out of an eight-year period of underfunding.”

Baker’s research has found that increased school funding typically does make a difference for outcomes. 

In his recent book, he found the majority of students in Kansas were in districts that had adequate spending and were exceeding national standards. The same wasn’t true of Missouri, which Baker says has a weaker funding system. 

But Trabert argues student achievement levels in Kansas — such as national test scores and percentages of students scoring at grade level — aren’t acceptable.

He said standards such as graduation rates don’t truly demonstrate achievement because they don’t capture what students have learned, and he said schools aren’t putting enough focus on academics. 

“If you’re going to introduce something new,” such as social-emotional learning, Trabert said, “you have to make room by moving something else aside, and unfortunately, it seems to be academics.” 

Buie said criticism of Kansas achievement usually focuses on state and national test scores, which don’t capture everything schools do for students. He said a more in-depth examination would include graduation rates, postsecondary outcomes, enrollment in high-level classes and student progress as measured by more frequent assessments.

Businesses don’t tell schools they want students with straight A’s, he said. Instead, they want graduates to be cooperative and independent thinkers with good habits. 

“Schools are responsible for instilling a lot of those items and supporting a lot of those pieces with kids, along with the family,” Buie said. “What is visible to the outside world about the success of our schools, it’s just a snapshot of what goes on in our schools every single day.”

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Maria Benevento is the education reporter at The Kansas City Beacon. She is a Report for America corps member. Follow her on Twitter @MariaFBenevento.