Kansas Lawmakers Reject School Finance Myths

Published May 1, 2004

On March 11, the Kansas House of Representatives rejected a $1 billion tax hike proposal for financing the Shawnee Mission school district, which has the second-largest student enrollment in the state.

The vote suggests state legislators may be coming to understand that much of the “conventional wisdom” on state spending in general and school finance in particular is wrong. Most lawmakers were not swayed by heavy lobbying from school spending growth advocates at the statehouse.

But on April 6, Shawnee Mission voters approved a $184 million bond issue by a 2-to-1 margin, suggesting myths continue to pervade the school finance debate. What follows are four prominent myths that have often held sway.

Myth 1: State spending for K-12 is inadequate.
Total spending for K-12 education in Kansas for the first time exceeded $9,000 per-pupil last year. Enrollment in Kansas public schools, which peaked about five years ago, has been falling since and is now at best flat. The total tax expenditure on Kansas public schools now exceeds $4 billion a year.

Myth 2: Schools are spending only $3,863 per pupil.
The $3,863 per pupil figure represents the state’s spending on base state aid only. Total state spending averages well over $5,000 per pupil per year in Kansas; local and federal spending brings that to more than $9,000.

Myth 3: Kansas school finance is unconstitutional.
A district court judge in Shawnee County has issued a preliminary opinion that the state’s system of school finance is unconstitutional. But the Kansas Supreme Court has already ruled on the subject, upholding the constitutionality of the school finance system that has been in place since 1992.

Myth 4: State school spending has not kept up with inflation.
Between 1992 and 2004 state spending on K-12 increased by more than $1.3 billion, rising from $1.028 billion to a projected $2.330 billion. That 126 percent increase is almost four times the rate of inflation during that 12-year period, as measured by the Consumer Price Index.

“The March 11 vote in the legislature was a victory for those of us who believe schools don’t need more money,” said George Petersen, a taxpayer advocate for Kansas Taxpayers Network. “But we all know tax victories like this can be short-lived. We’ll have to stay sharp, because we know the tax-and-spend crowd didn’t give up on April 6.”

Karl Peterjohn is executive director of the Kansas Taxpayers Network. His email address is [email protected].