TOPEKA — Plans to increase funding for education are going nowhere fast thanks to political in-fighting and the Legislature’s tendency to put off the biggest issues until the last minute.
At the crux of the debate is a Senate-approved plan to add $74 to the per-pupil school finance formula, a move supporters say would inch the state toward restoring big cuts made in the midst of the recession.
Wichita Democrat Rep. Jim Ward, who is on the education conference committee, said he worries that the push to pass a massive tax-cutting plan could eat into dollars that could be used to help restore school funding.
“The question is do we spend money on tax cuts for rich people and out-of-state corporations or do we spend money restoring the cuts to education,” he said. “That’s what it’s all about.”
Not so, says House Speaker Mike O’Neal, R-Hutchinson. He said the tax plan is a separate issue and that more money may not be needed for schools.
“My personal view is that there is no real need to increase base state aid,” he said. But he said schools can tap their reserves to increase their base state aid. That’s an idea that many school administrators say would drain savings and put them in a precarious financial situation, but it has support from conservatives who say school reserves have become bloated.
O’Neal said the House may be willing to increase base state aid if the Senate accepts some of the House’s policy ideas, such as alternative teacher certification.
Wichita Republican Sen. Jean Schodorf, however, said she believes the tax plan, which would create a $160 million budget deficit in 2018 as the bill stands today, creates a “chilling effect” for school finance.
“Hopefully it will not prohibit us from having increased funding,” she said. “It’s a serious problem right now.”
She noted that the House hasn’t approved a school finance bill and said House leaders are holding the issue up as a bargaining chip for more favorable redistricting maps.
Schodorf said business as usual is not funding schools. “That has become kind of the status quo in the legislature, and this year we desperately need to get a funding increase for schools.”
The education finance bill, which carries a $160 million price tag, would also give extra money to property-poor districts so that they can provide roughly the same quality education as rich districts. The bill would also let local school boards ask voters to increase property taxes slightly to fund schools.
Rep. Clay Aurand, a Republican from Belleville on the education conference committee, said the House and Senate don’t need a bill to increase school funding; it can be done through the budget.
The idea to let local school boards ask voters for property tax increases for education may have less support in the House, he said. Currently, local districts can only draw taxes for up to 30 percent of what they get in state funding. The proposed bill increases that to 32 percent next year and 33 percent after that.
He said school finance typically is one of the last things lawmakers allocate money for.
“I don’t anticipate knowing that dollar amount until there is some large agreement reached on tax issues, KPERS issues, some of the big issues,” he said. “Inevitably, the things that matter most are the things that are held to last simply because nobody wants to compromise on what they believe they need.”