Gov. Brownback has requested the Kansas Legislature work toward defining the term “suitable education” as one of his initiatives to streamline and modernize state government.
The need for a widely accepted and defendable definition stems from language in the Kansas Constitution: “The Legislature shall make suitable provision for finance of the educational interests of the state.”
That single sentence has led to much confusion, discussion, and even lawsuits, precipitated in part by the fact that education comprises a large part of all state expenditures. Gov. Brownback rightly recognizes it would be a huge help if we could figure out a workable definition of “suitable.”
On the one hand, the constitution talks about suitable funding, not suitable education, but to figure out “suitable funding” I believe we must agree on what we are funding. I can say with confidence we have widely divergent views in the Legislature and throughout Kansas.
This is not the first time that pony has been saddled. Since 1992 the Legislature has provided at least four different definitions of what it thinks is suitable. The first three have since been discarded and the fourth method of funding is still on the books, yet the controversy continues. It really is a difficult task.
My concern is that some folks in the Statehouse look forward to establishing a definition of “suitable” that includes education basics but little else. Legislators looking to simply spend less would like that outcome. Ditto for some folks from the more affluent school districts.
Here is what one representative of the Shawnee Mission school district had to say: “Once the state knows what ‘suitability’ is and the Legislature funds it, then we’re hoping the state wouldn’t have a reason to hold back districts who want to go above that.”
I have heard a fellow legislator state that Kansas should fund the basics and then set individual school districts free to fund whatever level of education they want for their children. That comment begs the question: Is teaching only the “basics” suitable?
Well guess what! Every Kansas parent—and most every school board member—wants the very best education for our children. That is just as true in Lost Springs as it is in Bonner Springs, and as true in Wichita County as in the city of Wichita.
We all want the best for our children. The problem is that some districts can afford to provide it on their own, and other districts can’t, and that leads to unequal educational opportunity. Students would emerge from poorer school districts unprepared to be fully productive members of 21st century society. That is not a good outcome for those students, for those districts, or for Kansas.
If Kansas adopts a definition of “suitable” that only covers a minimal education, the only choice local school districts would have to finance anything above that would be to raise the funds through property taxes.
Yet in 2010 the total mill levy in Peabody and Cottonwood Falls was 209. In Marion, it was 188, 194 in Lincolnville, 144 in Cassoday, 156 in El Dorado, and in Hillsboro it was 168. Out in the townships, Milton paid 151, 135 in Clear Creek and 138 in Cedar.
Compare these numbers to the 110 mills paid by Overland Park residents or the 120 paid by folks in Wichita, and you begin to see the issue.
Property taxes are already significantly higher in much of rural Kansas compared to property taxes in larger cities. Forcing more educational expense funding through local property taxes worsens disparity and increases the competitive disadvantage for rural Kansas.
Rural school boards have an incredible challenge no matter what “suitable” comes to mean. If they accept a lower standard of education, they risk losing students and families to districts that offer more. If they raise property taxes even higher, they increase the stifling effect that burdensome tax rates have on economic activity.
In the past 10 years, 40 rural Kansas counties have suffered double-digit population decline; most rural counties have seen some decline. Either of these choices only accelerates the de-population of rural Kansas. That, to me, is not suitable nor acceptable. We can, and we must, do better.
Please contact me at: Brookens70@sbcglobal.net or write me at 201 Meadow Lane, Marion, KS 66861 or at Kansas State Capitol Building, 300 SW 10th, Topeka, KS 66612; or call me at 620-382-2133. My phone number during the session (through about May 15) is 785-296-7636. If you’re coming to Topeka, let me know; my office is now in the Capitol.