A plan to increase school funding by about $278 million over two years is headed to the House floor under criticism from some lawmakers who call it woefully inadequate.
An earlier version of the school finance proposal called for an increase of $750 million over five years. The House K-12 Budget Committee cut the amount before voting 10-6 to send the plan to the House.
The bill boosts funding for two years and then ties future increases to inflation.
Typically, committees advance bills with a favorable recommendation; the panel sent this bill without a recommendation. The committee’s neutral stance reflected divisions among lawmakers over how much funding should be increased.
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The figure the committee arrived at represented a compromise rather than a consensus. Some pushed for an even smaller increase, while others urged the panel to stick to its earlier $750 million number.
Even supporters of the bill were not certain whether the amount would satisfy the Kansas Supreme Court, which ordered the Legislature to develop a new funding formula by June 30. The court found the formula inadequate in March, citing academic underperformance by 25 percent of Kansas students.
“No one knows. No one in this building knows. Only the court knows what that dollar amount is,” said Rep. Larry Campbell, R-Olathe, who chaired the committee. He added that he felt good the amount had been “reasonably calculated,” a reference to the court’s opinion.
The move from a five-year plan to a two-year plan was driven by worries among some on the committee that the Legislature in the future may not make good on funding promises.
“It just seems like we always do these out years to get the monkey off our back when we’re really putting the monkey on the next person,” said Rep. Scott Schwab, R-Olathe.
Some lawmakers voted to advance the bill despite reservations, saying they thought it should be debated on the House floor.
Rep. Melissa Rooker, R-Fairway, made the motion in committee that the bill be passed without a recommendation. She said it was time to allow the legislative process to continue.
“It goes without saying this is not what I would have liked, and it is also very clear this committee is sharply divided. So I think it’s appropriate to pass it out without recommendation,” Rooker said.
House Minority Leader Jim Ward, D-Wichita, said the committee wasn’t reflective of the House as a whole. He predicted the bill would change when it is debated on the floor.
The amount of funding in the bill is “woefully inadequate,” Ward said, repeating a phrase used by others opposed to the amount. He said it wouldn’t satisfy the needs of schools.
“I don’t think there’s very many people in the Kansas House, other than the ultra-conservatives, who think it does,” Ward said.
Because the bill contains new spending, some lawmakers fear the House’s pay-go rule will apply. The rule prohibits amendments that add spending to budget bills without a corresponding spending decrease.
In effect, the rule would mean lawmakers could not raise the level of funding for schools on the House floor without also proposing budget cuts in other areas of government.
The House Rules Committee would determine whether pay-go applies, but only if an amendment to increase spending is challenged as violating the rule.
Targeting at-risk students
The committee met for weeks, wading through dozens of amendments to develop the plan. Lawmakers on the panel, as well as close observers – such as education lobbyists – agreed the panel had done a generally good job in crafting the formula’s structure.
The formula is designed to better target funding for at-risk students than current law does. The plan, House Bill 2410, funds all-day kindergarten and puts more money into early childhood education.
“I honestly, truly think structure-wise, we got it. So the answer to that one is I think we’re sound there,” Campbell said.
The main disagreement seems to be the total amount of funding.
“I think from the education community, there’s just a lot of disappointment. While certainly better than we’ve seen the last few years, this really does nothing to deal with how far we’ve fallen behind in the last five or six years,” said Mark Tallman, a lobbyist for the Kansas Association of School Boards.
The committee vote Monday took place as lawmakers continue to search for consensus on taxes and revenue. The state faces a budget shortfall of about $900 million over two years, before any additional education spending.
The Senate debated a tax plan last week that would have raised more than $1 billion over two years by increasing personal income tax rates, adding a third tax bracket and eliminating exemptions for certain kinds of business income.
The Senate voted down the plan after most conservative Republicans and Democrats rejected it.
Diane Gjerstad, a lobbyist for Wichita public schools, said a lot of the committee’s discussion had been over how to balance education spending with passing a tax package.
“I frankly think we ought to be thinking about ‘What do we need to educate all kids to high standards?’ ” said Gjerstad.
“That ought to be our guidepost. How do we give schools the resources they need to prepare students to be successful in a 21st-century workforce?”