Bill to fix school finance wins bipartisan approval in Kansas House

04/04/2014 3:18 PM

08/08/2014 10:23 AM

The Kansas House quickly passed its proposed solution for inequities in school funding Friday with bipartisan support, not long after the governor praised the bill.

The final vote to pass SB 218 was 91-31. The centrist bill removed several previously proposed cuts and contained little in terms of conservative policy proposals.

Lawmakers now must forge a compromise between two very different bills: the House bill and one passed by the Senate that includes more education policy changes, including a halt to funding for Common Core standards.

Leaders said they were optimistic they could bridge the differences and send the governor a bill before before lawmakers leave for a three-week break. Negotiators met Friday evening, then planned to return Saturday morning.

“This has happened before,” said Senate President Susan Wagle, R-Wichita. “We’re a citizen Legislature, and we come from all points of view, and in the end we compromise and we pass legislation that gets the majority in both chambers and the governor’s signature,” she said minutes after the House vote.

“I think we have to come up with a bill that’s palatable to both sides and I think there will be some education reform in the final package,” she added.

The House bill would allocate nearly $130 million to address gaps in local option budget and capital outlay funds, the two areas identified by the Supreme Court last month as having unconstitutional inequalities between school districts.

“I think this is the fundamental issue that we need to address and I think this bill does that,” House Minority Leader Paul Davis, D-Lawrence, said as he urged his party to get behind the bill.

The bill also would give school districts an opportunity to increase the cap on their local option budget – money that comes from a community’s property taxes – by a mail-in ballot. That would give the Wichita school district an extra $10 million if voters approved.

At a Republican caucus meeting earlier, Gov. Sam Brownback strongly urged House members to pass the bill.

After the vote, he issued a statement praising the bill, saying it “increases funding to Kansas schools by $83 million and includes $74 million of property tax relief.”

He said in the statement that he and legislative leaders were committed to proving a solution that satisfies the court order by the end of the regular session in a way that “ensures every taxpayer dollar is spent as effectively and efficiently as possible.”

Earlier, Brownback would not say he preferred the House bill over the Senate bill, which contains more education police changes, including eliminating administrative due process for public school teachers.

But he made clear to House Republicans that their bill, which reforms teacher certification but is otherwise pretty light on policy, is a good bill.

House bill’s details

Some conservative lawmakers, such as Rep. Pete DeGraaf, R-Mulvane, said the House bill spends too much money and does not accomplish needed policy reforms.

“I think it’s a clear indicator that conservatives in the House do not like this plan. The fight’s never over until signing time,” DeGraaf said.

He later added that there were no measures in the bill to ensure educational outcomes.

It would require about $44 million out of the state general fund. It shifts some money from other areas of the state budget, including $24 million from the Department of Administration.

Unlike the Senate bill, it tries to minimize cuts to other areas of the education budget. But it does cut some education funding.

A provision that caps the age for at-risk funding at 19 will cut almost $750,000 from Wichita schools’ state money.

Diane Gjerstad, lobbyist for the Wichita school district, said the district has concerns about this provision and others, but that the district stood to gain in other areas.

“Every time we make school finance sausage, there’s pluses and minuses,” she said outside the House chamber as legislators debated.

Reconciling House, Senate bills

House Speaker Ray Merrick, R-Stilwell, called the House bill a victory for the state of Kansas. He was confident that the two chambers could resolve their policy differences.

“I think it’ll come together. We’ve been working with the Senate and I think the thing’s going to mesh pretty well,” he said.

Rep. Marc Rhoades, R-Newton, resigned as House Appropriations chair earlier in the week over frustration with the long-term cost of the House bill and its lack of policy reforms.

Rhoades scolded his colleagues for deciding to pay the money when he saw a myriad of other options.

“I remember when we stood here, two different State of the States, and had hundreds of us clapping because it was our job to appropriate, our job to set policy,” Rhoades said, referencing this year’s State of the State address in which Brownback questioned the Supreme Court’s authority to rule on school finance.

Earlier in the day, Brownback said his position has remained consistent. He said he opposed the court ruling on a specific dollar amount for adequate funding, but did not oppose the Supreme Court’s March ruling for equity between districts.

Rep. Gene Suellentrop, R-Wichita, who took over the role of Appropriations chair on Monday, said bipartisan support for the bill showed that House members in both parties understood the need to address the issue at hand and bring more equality to school funding.

Rep. Ward Cassidy, R-St. Francis, a former principal who sits on the committee, was thrilled after its passage, which came at the end of a week of late-night meetings.

“Right now everything we’re doing is great education policy. I’m really tickled with the House position. It took a lot of negotiation, a lot of work back and forth,” he said.

Rep. Kasha Kelley, R-Arkansas City, another member of the committee, expressed disappointment that the bill did not include enough reforms.

Easing teacher hiring

The bill’s one major change to education policy is to make it easier for people to be hired as teachers without teaching credentials, provided they have either industry certifications or degrees in specific subject area, such as science, technology and finance.

It’ll also make it easier for teachers certified in other states.

Rep. Ed Trimmer, D-Winfield, tried but failed to pass an amendment to strip this provision, which he said could lead to schools hiring teachers without adequate training. But Republicans said this is an important reform that will help get teachers with industry experience into Kansas classrooms.

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