Nebraska lawmakers discuss tying state aid to school performance -
Published Friday, August 23, 2013 at 1:00 am / Updated at 3:43 am
Nebraska lawmakers discuss tying state aid to school performance

LINCOLN — Nebraska school districts would lose state aid for not meeting performance goals under an idea that lawmakers brought up Thursday.

The proposal was one of many up for discussion during a two-day meeting of the Legislature's Education Committee.

The panel is spending the summer and fall looking at how to revamp the funding of K-12 schools.

State Sen. Jim Scheer of Norfolk said tying state funding to school performance would be a way to wake up taxpayers to problems in their local schools. “That's something that should be part of our formula,” he said.

People don't always pay attention to school quality, Scheer said, but they would notice if they had to pay higher property taxes or see school budget cuts.

He suggested lifting the property tax levy lid for schools hit by a loss of aid so those districts could replace the lost funds.

School levies now are capped at $1.05 for every $100 of valuation, unless voters approve a higher amount.

Sen. Ken Haar of Malcolm, however, questioned whether taking money away from schools would be the best way to improve student success rates.

He said the state should provide help for struggling districts before moving on to punitive steps.

“We have to figure out sticks that don't hurt the children,” Haar said.

Sen. Kate Sullivan of Cedar Rapids, the committee chairwoman, wondered about the political ramifications of tying performance to state aid.

Would the public blame local school officials for not providing quality education or the state for taking away aid? she asked.

Other lawmakers questioned how school performance would be measured and what standards schools would have to meet.

Scheer said schools should be judged based on trends in student achievement, so that schools in high poverty areas or with many English-language learners would not be at a disadvantage.

Michael Griffith, a school finance expert from the Education Commission of the States, suggested that Nebraska could borrow a page from Maryland, which sets individual performance goals for each school district by contract.

He also described an approach to school funding used by many states in which state officials determine the amount needed to educate an average student.

Typically, states have to do extensive studies to come up with that figure.

“Whenever these studies are done, the number they will come up with is higher than states are spending,” Griffith said.

That amount, called foundation funding, can be adjusted to account for extra costs, such as students with limited English skills, those from low-income families or those in small school districts.

The foundation funding can be set at a minimum level or an aspirational level, Griffith said.

In Nebraska, the largest portion of school aid aims to fill the gap between what schools need to educate children and what they can get from property taxes and other resources.

The state determines need based on past spending by school districts. It does not attempt to measure whether schools are spending at the right level.

Along with discussing how to divvy up school aid dollars, the Education Committee talked about the sources of aid funding.

Scheer suggested that districts be allowed to keep a portion of the income and sales tax dollars generated within their boundaries, thus reducing their need for state funds.

The change would help provide a local revenue source for urban districts, which have not seen their property tax base grow with the rising valuation of agricultural land, Sen. Al Davis of Hyannis said.

But Haar questioned whether that proposal would simply shift dollars around, because state aid funds consist of income and sales tax dollars.

Sullivan noted that the approach would not necessarily ease property taxes. She asked whether the committee's priorities should be reducing property taxes, providing more money for schools or some other goal.

Sullivan also said that many of the ideas under discussion would cost more money and would have to be balanced with the dollars available.

The committee made no decisions on aid changes this week.

Sullivan said she hopes to craft a proposal next month and get public comments on it during a series of hearings across the state in October.

The committee is aiming to develop a new state aid plan by the end of the year.

Contact the writer: Martha Stoddard    |   402-473-9583    |  

Martha covers the Nebraska Legislature, the governor, state agencies, and health, education and budget issues out of our Lincoln bureau.

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