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All-day kindergarten funding in Kansas appears dead

  • Kansas City Star
  • Published Tuesday, March 25, 2014, at 8:12 p.m.
  • Updated Tuesday, April 15, 2014, at 1:39 p.m.

— Gov. Sam Brownback’s election-year proposal for the state to pick up the bill for all-day kindergarten is apparently dead, key lawmakers said Tuesday.

The governor’s plan to phase in funding for all-day kindergarten is being cast aside as lawmakers scramble to find money to resolve what the courts decreed an unconstitutional wealth disparity between rich and poor school districts.

Legislators are under a court order to find an estimated $129 million to fix the problem by July 1 or risk having a panel of state judges fashion its own solution. This year’s legislative session is set to end May 15.

“Now is not the year,” said House Speaker Ray Merrick, R-Stilwell.

Merrick was joined by other lawmakers from the Senate who do not think enough money is available to fund the court ruling and add a major new education program.

“There’s fairly broad consensus that’s off the table,” said Sen. Ty Masterson, R-Andover and chair of the budget-writing Senate Ways and Means Committee.

Senate President Susan Wagle, R-Wichita, said the Legislature’s first responsibility is to comply with the court’s ruling.

“After we have completed that task, there will not be enough funding for all-day kindergarten,” she said in a statement.

Brownback opened the session with a plan to add $16 million a year until it reaches $80 million annually to pay for all-day kindergarten.

His conservative allies had doubts about the program’s effectiveness from the start of this year’s legislative session. They argued all-day kindergarten would be used as a substitute for day care with little academic rigor.

But Brownback vigorously campaigned for his plan, visiting several schools across the state to tout the benefits of all-day kindergarten. He called the spending proposal a strategic investment to ensure children are better positioned to succeed in school.

On Tuesday, the governor had clearly shifted direction.

“Our focus is on solving the equity issue for our schools,” Brownback said in a statement. “Working with legislative leadership, I am looking at a wide range of options to resolve this issue.”

Of the 286 Kansas school districts, Wichita and 250 others provide all-day kindergarten out of their budgets. Twenty districts charge for full-day kindergarten. Fifteen school districts statewide do not offer all-day kindergarten.

Wichita school officials have said the district currently pays $8.5 million for 4,400 kindergartners to attend all-day school.

In some districts around Wichita, such as Andover and Maize, parents pay extra if their children attend all-day kindergarten. Andover, which has 188 all-day kindergartners, charges parents $275 a month for each full-day kindergartner, while Maize, with about 270 all-day students, charges $250 a month.

The Kansas Board of Education has been trying for several years to get funding for all-day kindergarten.

“We believe in the value of early education,” said Kansas Education Commissioner Diane DeBacker “The sooner you have children in a structured learning environment, the better they’re going to do throughout their schooling.”

Lawmakers are still struggling to find a solution for resolving the disparity cited in the Supreme Court’s opinion.

Democrats are proposing to take $129 million from the state’s reserves to meet the court’s order. Meanwhile, Republicans tried – and then abandoned – a plan to put more money into schools. That proposal was tied to incentives that would have given parents more choice in choosing which schools to enroll their children in.

Republicans have crafted another plan that education experts say provides money for the court order but redirects some cash from other funds within school funds to fix the problem.

“This kind of takes money out of one pocket to put into another,” said Mark Tallman, lobbyist for the Kansas Association of School Boards. “It means almost every district is going to lose some operating money.”

Marc Rhoades, R-Newton and chairman of the House Appropriations Committee, said Republicans are trying to limit the amount of new money that goes into complying with the court order.

Rhoades said it would be a “real chore” to get a majority of Republicans to agree to spend tens of millions more in new money on schools.

Reach Brad Cooper at 816-234-7724 or bcooper@kcstar.com.

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