No Easy Path Ahead For School Funding In The Kansas Legislature

May 15, 2017
Originally published on May 15, 2017 3:19 am

When Kansas lawmakers started this legislative session in January, most agreed that comity was back, partnerships would be forged and work would get done.

That was then and this is now.

A trio of challenges remain as the Legislature on Sunday passed the 90-day mark in its session: a budget, a tax plan and a school funding formula.

But school funding is a special problem because anything the Legislature comes up with must pass muster with the Kansas Supreme Court. Educators and many lawmakers hoped most of the work on a new school funding plan would be done by now or even before first adjournment a month ago

“I think I was optimistic at first adjournment,” says Democratic Rep. Brett Parker, a freshman legislator from Overland Park who teaches in the Olathe school district. “The last week was a little disheartening.”

Disheartening because the K-12 Budget Committee, which has been working all session on a plan, has yet to kick out a bill. Chairman Larry Campbell, a Republican from Olathe, promised a bill before the Legislature’s three-week break in April.

The committee twice has failed to pass out a bill since lawmakers returned May 1, with its latest attempt failing Friday. Campbell again promises a completed bill and vote Monday.

But school funding has a long, hard road ahead.

In its current form, the plan would add $750 million in new money over five years. Many, but not all, members of the committee think that would be enough to satisfy the high court. 

On Friday the committee did approve an amendment that added $21 million for at-risk students and killed a plan that would have required districts to use some of their local property tax revenue for at-risk.

The measure also restores much of the old formula that was scrapped for the block grant scheme that the courts found unconstitutional. 

After the bill leaves committee, it will head to the House floor where a long and perhaps contentious debate awaits it. Some members are expected to try to get more money to school districts sooner.

For example, while many educators and lawmakers seem mostly content with an additional $750 million, they think the state Supreme Court would have trouble with the five-year time frame. Debate may focus on providing that extra money over two or three years.

The House as a whole generally is seen as a bit more progressive than the K-12 Committee.

“If we get it on the floor, there’s a strong coalition to get a bill that’s acceptable” to moderates and Democrats, says Parker.

Indeed, Jeff King, a lawyer and former senator from Independence hired to advise the Legislature, has said the justices will see more money as better.

King also has stressed that whatever amount the Legislature provides, it might be more important to make sure it’s backed by a reliable funding stream.

“Funding that occurs today, next year, two years is more certain by definition than funding that occurs in five or six years,” King told the K-12 Committee in early May. 

That’s something he also has said to state Senators who are writing a funding plan. So far they’ve made little progress and seem to be waiting for a final House bill to come over. 

However, Senate leaders have suggested that the Legislature could put a lot less money into the formula and still have it gain the court’s approval.

Senate Majority Leader Jim Denning from Overland Park floated an idea Friday that would add more than $150 million in the first year and then increase every year according to the Midwest Consumer Price Index.

Denning also has suggested a surcharge on utility bills that would raise about $150 million a year. 

But that reliable source of funding King has talked so much about has so far been elusive.

“I have not seen a tax plan, or heard of a tax plan, that is that robust,” Sen. John Skubal, a Republican from Overland Park, said on the Statehouse Blend Kansas podcast. “We have to have a source to make these payments.” 

A couple of other sources also have been suggested, including tax increases on tobacco and alcohol.

That doesn’t sit well with many senators, including Republican Sen. John Doll from Garden City.

“Any time you take a subset of people and put the burden of them funding education, I can’t support that,” he said on Statehouse Blend Kansas.

Sam Zeff covers education for KCUR and the Kansas News Service and is co-host of the political podcast Statehouse Blend Kansas. Follow him on Twitter @SamZeff. Kansas News Service stories and photos may be republished at no cost with proper attribution and a link back to KCUR.org.

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