Base Funding Doesn’t Tell All

Discussions of school funding typically focus on just one element of the funding formula, the base state aid per pupil. That’s the amount that the state legislature allocates for each “student unit.”

In December, the Kansas Legislative Research Department published a 28-page report (PDF) describing the formula. Looking through the report shows just how complex–some might say convoluted–is the process for funding schools.

You’d think that the number of students enrolled in a school would be the primary factor in how much money a school gets. And you’d be right, but only partly so, for when it comes to funding, some students are more equal than others.

Here’s a partial list of the various kinds of money that a district can get:

  1. Base state aid per pupil (BSAPP)
  2. Low-enrollment weighting
  3. High-enrollment, or correlational, weighting
  4. Transportation weighting
  5. Vocational education weighting
  6. Bilingual education weighting
  7. At-risk pupil weighting
  8. High-density at-risk pupil weighting
  9. Medium-density at-risk pupil weighting
  10. Non-proficient at-risk weighting
  11. School facilities weighting
  12. Ancillary [new building] school facilities funding
  13. Special education and related services funding
  14. Declining enrollment weighting
  15. Cost-of-living weighting

The first item on the list–the base state aid per pupil–is what gets the press. For example, the Kansas Reporter (also affiliated with the Kansas Policy Institute), says

The governor’s proposed combination of a one-cent sales tax increase and higher taxes on cigarettes and tobacco products will raise enough money to increase the state’s total education budget by $12 million, to $3.28 billion, and to increase basic state aid to students $50 per student, to an avearge $4,062, Deputy Education Commissioner Dale Dennis told the Kansas State Board of Education at its January meeting.

But without the money from the proposed tax increases, education spending drops to $3.04 billion, and per pupil aid falls by $286 to $3,276, or about 1999 levels, Dennis reported. Cutting that deeply would force districts across Kansas to lay off teachers and other employees.

Can schools do the job with $3,276 per pupil? That doesn’t sound like much. Neither does $4,062. But remember, all those weightings (and other types of funding) add up.

As a quick look, consider these numbers, which you can find in Volume 3 of a series of reports by the Kansas Policy Institute:

$3,863 … $9,235

$3,863 … $9,707

$4,257 … $10,596

$4,316 … $11,558

$4,374 … $12,188

$4,400 … $12,660

What do these numbers represent? They’re numbers from school year 2003-04 through 2008-09. Both represent the per-pupil funding, on average, that districts in the state received in each of those years. The first column is the base funding from the state, before any weightings.  The second column is the total revenue that the “average” district received, after state weightings and other state money, after local revenues, and after federal grants.

So take a look at these numbers:

42

38

40

37

36

35

These numbers? They represent the percentage of total revenue that is supplied by the base aid amount.  Clearly, the base aid is an important though hardly the only element of school funding, so focusing on changes in that amount gives us an incomplete picture, at best.

Advocates of legal action against the Legislature (read: people) will point out that the percentage of revenues supplied by the state base aid has declined over the years. But that’s due in part to increases in non-base aid brought about by the Montoy lawsuit. And it should also be noted that when all funding sources are considered, per-pupil funding is UP. In fact, per-pupil revenue is up 32 percent in just six years. A slight pullback, then, should not be traumatic. An organization with managerial flexibility should be able to adjust to an overall cut of a percentage point or two.

For a variety of reasons relating to politics, however, schools are anything but flexible. And that’s a big part of the problem.

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