In Search of Targets. There were no education conference committee proceedings today. Senator Wiger had the gavel today and could have called a meeting, but it was decided that in the absence of a budget target, a meeting would not have accomplished much. The primary differences in the House and Senate bills have been discussed as well as the difference in overall investment between the House, Senate, and the Governor so there isn't much need for further explanation. The priorities of each body and the administration have been well defined so there shouldn't be a lot of difficulty in putting together a bill rather quickly once the overall budget target is set. The complication in setting targets may have more to do with wrangling over the tax bill and the health and human services bill as opposed to the education bill and seeing you can only spend a dollar once and a dollar spent on tax cuts is equal to a dollar spent on education in terms of setting the overall budget and even with a budget forecast surplus of nearly $2 billion.
One factor that may play a large role in determining the final budget and tax targets is the number of states with significant budget gaps cropping up. A number of the states that are experiencing budget shortfalls did not (or have not yet) raised state taxes or fees, which Minnesota did in a big way in 2013, so it is difficult to tell whether the states with budget gaps are having cyclical problems based on revenue fluctuations resulting from changes in economic performance or structural problems where expenditures (often based on entitlements and on-going formulas) are simply out-stripping resources beyond economic projections. Here is an Associated Press article from the Sunday Minneapolis StarTribune describing the problem: States' Budget Gaps Sound Fiscal Alarms
Portent of Things to Come. A state that has been having budget problems is Kansas and one of the ways that Governor Sam Brownback and the Legislature are trying to solve the problem is changing the way that schools are funded in the state. Kansas recently passed a block grant system first proposed by Governor Brownback in March. While I don't know how the magnitude of each district's block grant is calculated, the logic of the approach from the proponent's side is that it gets rid of categorical funding and gives total flexibility to school districts in meeting their own individual needs. The problem is that this reminds me a bit of the approach taken by the Reagan Administration back in the early-1980s when they collapsed a bunch of Federal programs into block grants and then shipped them to the states where the money could be used more flexibly than under Federal law. That did two things: (1) it did give states flexibility, but state goals are often for better or worse different (sometimes radically) than the vision that went into the development of the programs that composed the block grants, and (2) the block grant amount usually--but not in every state--was smaller than the sum of the individual program appropriations. The old "you need less money if you have complete flexibility" argument has been around for decades and it usually means school districts (or whatever recipient of the grant) ends up not having enough money to get what they need done.
Here are some articles on the Kansas situation, including a blog entry from Dr. Bruce Baker's Education Finance 101. For those of you not familiar with Dr. Baker, his blog is a pretty good repository on education finance and education policy.
March story from the Wichita Eagle announcing block grant proposal: Republicans Unveil Block Grant Plan
Late March story on plan approval: Brownback Signs School Block Grant Funding Bill
Recent story on school district reactions: Many Kansas Schools Bemoan Block Grants
The plight of the Silver Lake school district: Kansas School District Running Out of Options to Meet Cuts under Block Grant Formula
The possibility of litigation: School Funding Lawsuit Seeks to Find Out Constitutionality of Block Grants
Dr. Bruce Baker's perspective: Education Finance 101
It is important to remember that Kansas had a monumental school finance lawsuit--Montoy v. State--that found Kansas' education funding system to be unconstitutional. The Legislature brought the funding system up to a level that was considered constitutional, but then, of course, the recession came trotting along and all the best laid plans fell apart. So it's been an interesting couple of decades in Kansas as it relates to school funding and we have now embarked on a new chapter. One of my worries is that if the block grants are found to be constitutional, it will be an approach that will be suggested in a number of states, especially those in which there are budget issues.