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Kansas House GOP introduces new, $129 million school finance bill

  • Eagle Topeka bureau
  • Published Monday, March 24, 2014, at 7:40 p.m.
  • Updated Sunday, April 6, 2014, at 11:31 a.m.

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Correction: A previous version of this story stated that the bill included a provision that would have given tax credits to corporations that donate to scholarship funds for private schools. That portion has been taken out of new bill.

House leaders introduced a new school finance bill on Monday after washing their hands of a version that would have rapidly expanded charter schools under reduced regulations.

The new bill allocates $129 million to help close gaps in school funding between districts identified by the Supreme Court, but it does not state what amount will come from new money versus money shifted from other areas in the budget.

“That mix is still in flux,” said House Majority Leader Jene Vickrey, R-Louisburg. The court ordered the Legislature to fix inequities between districts by July 1.

House Bill 2774 also contains policy changes from the previous bill, but excises 23 pages on charter schools that were slipped into the bill without the knowledge of House leadership on Thursday.

“It’s the bill we planned to have the other day,” Vickrey said before the meeting started.

Rep. Marc Rhoades, R-Newton, had inserted the charter school language at the request of Rep. Kasha Kelley, R-Arkansas City, but did not inform House leaders.

In a statement released Friday, Rhoades took responsibility and said the addition was meant to spur debate and not damage negotiations between the House and Senate.

First bill’s unusual path

Rhoades and Kelley chair the House Appropriations and House Education committees, where school finance bills commonly get their start.

But the bill on Monday was introduced through the House Calendar and Printing Committee, chaired by House Speaker Ray Merrick, R-Stilwell, in a conference room rather than at a regularly scheduled committee meeting.

Merrick and his staff insisted the bill was introduced through his committee because of scheduling constraints, but House Democrats found that hard to believe. Now that it’s introduced, the bill will be passed on to the House Appropriations Committee.

Rep. Valdenia Winn, D-Kansas City, a member of Calendar and Printing, said the committee has not held a meeting since she joined the Legislature in 2001.

Rep. Tom Sawyer, D-Wichita, former House majority leader, said it is unusual for a school finance bill to go through Calendar and Printing, the committee that oversees the House calendar.

“It is odd,” Sawyer said, walking through the Capitol hallway. “It’s obviously coming down through leadership. I don’t know if it says they don’t trust the members. It is odd it would go through there and not the Education Committee or the Appropriations Committee.”

New reforms

Despite the charter legislation’s removal, the bill lays out several important policy changes. It amends the definition of “at-risk pupils” to exclude anyone over the age of 19. It also eliminates $4,492 from statute as the required figure for per pupil base state aid.

Mark Desetti, spokesman for the Kansas National Education Association, said removing the charter school language would not fix the Republican bill.

“There’s plenty of bad stuff in this bill,” Desetti said.

Desetti said legislators should focus on a simple task with this bill: fixing disparities identified by the Supreme Court. “Let’s deal with the equity and get this done with,” he said.

The bill also changes the teacher licensing process to allow a wider array of candidates including applicants with out-of-state credentials and experience in fields like science and engineering.

The bill establishes a commission to study and recommend improvements in K-12 student performance by early January 2015.

Vickrey called the reforms a beginning.

“It’s where we’re going to get started. There’s still other dynamics that we have to work on, but this is the policy piece and looking at the fact that we need to fund the portion the court has asked us to.”

Vickrey said he expected House Appropriations to begin hearings Tuesday.

House leadership also removed a controversial provision, which would have given tax credits to corporations that donate to private school scholarship funds— a measure school advocates saw as vouchers in disguise.

House leaders took it out because of the potential costs to the state to pay for these reimbursements to corporations. But it could be added back in during the committee process.

“The tax credits were removed because of the high fiscal note. Anyone wanting to add it back in during debate in committee or on the floor is welcome, but leadership didn't want to start out with it included because of the cost,” Merrick’s spokeswoman, Rachel Whitten, said in an e-mail on Tuesday.

Funding vs. policy changes

House Minority Leader Paul Davis, D-Lawrence, spoke with reporters earlier in the day and cautioned against attempts to join increased school funding with policy changes. The Legislature faces a strict July 1 deadline to fix inequities in school funding between districts.

If the Legislature does not meet that deadline, a district court has the option to halt school districts’ local option budget money.

“I think this isn’t that difficult. There is a simple solution here,” Davis said. He said the Legislature should just fund the $129 million needed to close the gaps between districts. If legislators want to discuss other policy changes, they can always do so in both the House and Senate, he said.

“Do it as a clean bill. And that’s what the court wants us to do. And if folks are going to monkey around with this, they run the risk that the court may exercise some of the remedies that are available to them and that may shut off for some school districts up to 25 percent of their general funding,” Davis said.

Reach Bryan Lowry at 785-296-3006 or blowry@wichitaeagle.com. Follow him on Twitter: @BryanLowry3.

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