Lawmakers advanced a plan Wednesday that would ramp up school spending by $278 million in two years after rejecting a larger increase.
The House gave first-round approval to House Bill 2410 on an 81-40 vote. A final vote could come Thursday.
The House debate – on the 100th day of the session – lasted more than 4 1/2 hours.
An amendment to boost school spending by $600 million in three years failed 47-75. A handful of Republicans joined Democrats in attempting to approve the larger funding increase.
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Lawmakers face a court-imposed June 30 deadline to enact a new formula. The Kansas Supreme Court will determine whether that new formula funds schools adequately.
The plan gives schools $180 million more in the next budget year and $278 million more in the year after that.
House Minority Leader Jim Ward, D-Wichita, contended the amount of funding was too low and predicted lawmakers would be back for a special session this summer to add more money.
“I’m planning on spending July in Topeka,” Ward said.
House Majority Leader Don Hineman, R-Dighton, didn’t dismiss the idea of returning to make changes if the court does not accept the new formula.
“I hope not,” he said of a special session. “We all have other plans for the summer. But if we have to, we’ll come back and fix it.”
At its core, the bill is designed to better target funding for at-risk students than the current law. The plan funds all-day kindergarten and puts more money into early childhood education.
If the bill passes on a final vote, it will head to the Senate. Senators have been developing their own school finance plan.
Fight over funding
Democrats and some Republicans said a funding increase of $278 million over two years is too little. An earlier version of the bill called for a $750 million increase in five years.
The amount that lawmakers settle on is key. The Supreme Court will take the amount, along with the formula itself, into consideration in deciding whether to approve the plan. The court ruled in March that the state’s current block grant system for funding education is inadequate. It cited academic underperformance by 25 percent of Kansas students.
Democrats offered an amendment to increase funding over three years. Under their plan, funding would increase by $200 million next year, $400 million the year after that and $600 million in the third year.
“I want to do as much as we can in the first three years. If we send this to the court, I want to do this right the first time,” Rep. Ed Trimmer, D-Winfield, said.
Democrats said the funding level in the underlying bill wouldn’t satisfy the court. Rep. Tom Sawyer, D-Wichita, said the justices wouldn’t buy excuses from the Legislature about why funding can’t be increased further. He listed a series of tax cuts over the years that have reduced revenue for the state.
The House Tax Committee chairman, Rep. Steven Johnson, R-Assaria, voted against the amendment. He said lawmakers should be able to pay for whatever education increases they approve.
Rep. Steve Huebert, R-Wichita, said the court didn’t call for a specific funding level.
“We can’t fund this amendment at this point in time,” Huebert said.
No one knows what the court will decide, Wichita schools superintendent John Allison said Monday. But he wasn’t persuaded the funding levels under discussion would be enough.
“I think there’s some serious questions (about) whether the court will find that to be adequately funding public education,” Allison said.
Other amendments considered by lawmakers mostly failed or were ruled out of order.
An amendment that would have required students to use the restrooms corresponding to their gender at birth was thrown out because it was not sufficiently related to the underlying legislation. Another amendment that would have restored teacher due process rights repealed in 2014 was also ruled nongermane.
‘A different bill’
The size of the school finance plan may also affect the ongoing gridlock over tax policy.
“For a lot of people, getting this bill through first was their No. 1 priority. So now I think that we will see some movement on a tax plan pretty quickly,” said Rep. Melissa Rooker, R-Fairway.
Democrats have wanted to pass an education finance formula first, before passing a tax plan. They contend the amount of increased education funding should drive the size of a tax package.
Both the House and Senate have rejected tax plans that would have raised in excess of $1 billion over two years. An expected debate in the House was scuttled Wednesday; that plan would have generated a little more than $900 million over two years.
A special House committee met for weeks crafting the school finance bill. Legislative leaders hired an attorney, former Sen. Jeff King, to guide them through the process and help create a record of legislative action that will be used to show the formula that ends up passing is constitutional.
No other bill has received as much attention this year.
“This is a different bill than anything we do,” said Rep. Larry Campbell, R-Olathe, who led the House effort in developing the bill.
Contributing: Suzanne Perez Tobias of The Eagle