Shawnee Mission legislators differ on education issues; funding still the hot topic

The legislators who represent our coverage area in northeast Johnson County often are in alignment on issues they face in Topeka. And as a delegation of moderate Republicans and a Democrat, they often found themselves in the minority in the 2013 session.

Sen. Greg Smith
Sen. Greg Smith

As 2014 approaches, and especially as the Shawnee Mission School District formulates its legislative platform, we thought it would be helpful to hear from a legislator who frequently has a different perspective. Sen. Greg Smith is a conservative Republican from Overland Park and a teacher at SM West High School, where a family member has been teaching or a student for five decades.

On several education issues, Smith goes a different direction from the moderates, but he does agree that school finance is the frontline issue of the new session for the senate. And he believes that the school finance formula is not only broken, but works to the disadvantage of the Shawnee Mission School District.

Approximately 25 percent of the education dollars in the state come from Johnson County, Smith says, but our schools get back only about 12.5 percent of the education distribution, less than our percentage of students. “I don’t see how that is equitable,” he says. “It’s a broken formula.”

The distribution is even unfair inside Johnson County, he contends, where districts get unequal shares. He says total school funding has risen even though the base aid per pupil has declined.

While Shawnee Mission students don’t get as much base state aid as they should, Smith says the majority of complaints in the schools and from teachers are not about money, but about policy. “We are looking for things that help us with the kids.” The district has long taken the position that the school finance formula should be changed and that districts should be able to raise more money locally.

“I don’t have a problem financing schools,” Smith says, the question is “how is the money spent?” It’s difficult to use a formula because it can’t tell you “if you spend X, you get Y.” At all schools, he says, “everyone knows who the great teachers are,” but not by a formula.

On other signature education issues, Smith veers from the Shawnee Mission draft platform and the moderate viewpoint. He contends the new Common Core standards have some drawbacks, were not thoroughly vetted and still need more public hearings. The attempt to block Common Core implementation failed in the 2013 session.

And, Smith says he is OK with tuition tax credits for private schools. “My goal is what is best for my students,” Smith says. Public education should not fear competition, he believes. The district has opposed any move that would send public money to support private education.

One issue where conservatives and moderates agree: the Kansas Supreme Court ruling on school funding could be a game changer for the legislature. And Smith praises the district and the school board for inviting legislators to talk about the issues recently. “To have an open dialogue…it was a (breath) of fresh air.”