Hensley: New school finance plan substantially raises property taxes, subsidizes private schools

By Senate Democratic Leader Anthony Hensley, D-Topeka

While the Legislature worked quickly in the final days of the regular session to pass a questionable plan to equalize school funding, Sen. Steve Abrams (R-Arkansas City) and Rep. Ron Highland (R-Wamego) introduced a school finance plan to replace the block grant system in the House Education Committee. It is the cause of much concern.

House Bill 2741 raises the statewide mill levy from 20 mills to 35 mills, resulting in a $450 million property tax increase, according to the Kansas Department of Education. The bill would also give school boards unlimited authority to raise local property taxes subject to a public vote.

Allowing this to happen will cause greater inequity due to disparities in wealth as related to a district’s tax base. For example, one mill of property tax in USD 499 Galena raises $17,338, or $24 per student, while one mill in USD 244 Burlington raises $449,704, or $550 per student. This is just another lawsuit waiting to happen.

Funding would be determined by the number of students in the district as determined by the previous year’s enrollment. None of the money provided by the state could be spent on extracurricular activities, including athletics, or food service. School districts would have the option to fund these programs themselves through fees, levy additional property taxes with approval of a public vote, or eliminate the programs all together.

The plan also permits the use of taxpayer dollars to subsidize private schools. Parents of students who have yet to start school or are currently enrolled in public schools, but choose to leave, could receive up to 70 percent of the per-pupil aid in their school district to use towards private or home school expenses.

To put that into perspective, that means that the parents of a student attending a school in a district of less than 400 students could get nearly $6,000 each year. For home school parents, that would be a real money maker.

In short, House Bill 2741 would be a heavy burden for property taxpayers, result in a more inequitable school finance system, and adversely impact the future of public education in Kansas.

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