Education funding in limbo as session winds down

TOPEKA | As the Kansas Legislature slowly moves through what could be its final day, the fate of education funding is still in doubt.

The Senate and the House disagree with how much money to put into schools. The Senate wants $77 million. The House wants to put in $50 million.

The Senate wants to take the money from general taxes. The House wants to take it from the state highway fund.

But all of this is essentially superfluous if both chambers can't agree on some matters of education policy that House leaders want.

The House has offered to give the Senate the education funding it wants, but in exchange, it wants the Senate to agree to a number of policy measures it doesn't necessarily like.

The House also wants the Senate to agree to revisit compromise plan for cutting taxes that the Senate has refused to consider.

The Senate made some concessions, but the House really is pushing for proposals that might tell the state courts how to adjudicate questions of school finance.

In a conference committee this morning, tensions flared a little when House and Senate leaders couldn't agree on some key policy matters, including measures that would direct how the courts to decide how to evaluate adequate school spending.

House members believe the state could benefit from the laws as the state prepares to go to court in several weeks and defend its current finance formula.

House members were perplexed why Senators wouldn't go along with the bills that had no direct effect on school budgets, but might save the state from a judgment costing taxpayers hundreds of millions of dollars.

In deciding the adequacy of school funding, one proposal would require that the courts consider no less than 65 percent of all state money spent on education as going toward classroom instruction.

The bill, backed by Republican House Speaker Mike O’Neal, also would require anyone bringing a court challenge over school finance to have the burden to prove that the money wasn’t sufficient to fund instructional costs.

Another proposal that the Senate doesn't really like would redefine a portion of local funding as state money that could be used to help the state defend the lawsuit.

"Can you tell me why something that will help (defend) the lawsuit is not negotiable," said state Rep. Clay Aurand, chair of the House Education Committee.

However, Sen. John Vratil, a Leawood Republican, said he thought the Legislature would be over-stepping its authority with those kinds of bills.

Vratil said he could not support bills undercutting the authority of the judiciary, the third branch of government

Key conservative House members have long had issues with how the courts have forced the state to cough up millions for schools.

Earlier this year, the House came up just shy of passing a constitutional amendment that would have effectively stopped the courts from solving questions about school funding.

The constitutional amendment, which would have gone to the voters, was directed at a state Supreme Court decision from 2005 that ordered the state to spend hundreds of millions more dollars on schools. There was a feeling among many Republicans that the court over-stepped its authority when it issued that ruling.

Back in 2005, the Supreme Court forced a rare special session of the Legislature when it ordered lawmaker to increase school funding by $143 million, setting off a bitter debate about whether the court had the power to direct legislative spending choices.

After 12 days, the Legislature met the court's conditions, Lawmakers also authorized a new study of education costs, which the court later said must reflect the cost of improving academic performance. The court told lawmakers to base future funding increases on those costs, which were priced at $400 million.

The state constitution already says the power to appropriate lies with the Legislature. But some lawmakers said more was needed to prevent the Supreme Court from interfering with budgeting.