Politics & Government

School funding goes back to court after Brownback signs bill

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Gov. Sam Brownback has signed a school finance bill that had comfortably passed the Legislature, meeting a deadline the Supreme Court set to provide more money for schools by the end of this month.

The next step will be for the court to evaluate whether the finance plan meets the state’s constitutional duty to provide suitable funding for education. The court earlier decided that block grant financing Brownback championed two years ago was inadequate.

In signing Senate Bill 19 on Thursday, Brownback issued a short statement that both criticized and complimented the Legislature on its work.

“The legislature missed an opportunity to substantially improve the K-12 funding system,” Brownback wrote. “They did, however, direct more dollars into the classroom by limiting bond and interest aid, encouraging responsible financial stewardship at the local level.

“Additionally, they included a sunset on the school funding system, allowing for a regular and robust discussion about the needs of Kansas students.”

Brownback’s signature was needed to move forward with funding for the upcoming school year.

“Awesome,” Rep. Brenda Landwehr, R-Wichita and a member of the Education Budget Committee, said of the bill signing. “I voted for the bill twice,” in committee and on the floor, she said.

“I think there was a lot of detail that was ironed out in trying to address the low-performing students” she said. “And then, of course, I’m excited about the expansion of the education tax credit.”

The bill will allow individuals to claim a tax credit if they fund scholarships to allow children who would otherwise go to low-performing public schools to attend private school instead. Previously, only corporations could qualify for those credits.

The school-finance formula is designed to better target funding for at-risk students than current law does. The Supreme Court cited underperformance by a quarter of Kansas students in its ruling. The bill also funds all-day kindergarten.

‘Moves the process along’

The bill passed both houses of the Legislature by comfortable margins, but not enough to override a veto.

The opposition was a mix of legislators who don’t ordinarily agree on much – anti-tax Republicans who think the bill went too far and pro-public-school Democrats who don’t think it went far enough.

One example of that dynamic is Republican Rep. John Whitmer and House Democratic Leader Jim Ward, both of Wichita.

Whitmer said he opposed the bill because he thinks the Legislature could have complied with the court order by shifting existing education dollars to better serve low-performing students, with little if any spending increase. And he opposed property-tax provisions in the bill that he said favor wealthy suburban districts at the expense of poorer rural schools.

A strong supporter of school choice, he said he thinks the private-school scholarship provision of the bill will actually make it harder rather than easier to apply.

“It’s a disappointment,” he said of the bill. “But this session’s been all about disappointment.”

Ward, on the other hand, read the school-choice provision as making it easier to shift good students and the dollars that fund them from public schools to private schools.

Although he opposed the bill, Ward said he was pleased Brownback signed it.

“I’m going to kind of ignore that ridiculous signing statement,” Ward said. “It moves the process along so the court can review it, so I’m glad he did that.”

Wichita gains aid

In 2015, the Legislature scrapped the school funding formula the state had been using since the early ’90s. The newly passed plan restores some of the features of the old formula, providing a base of state aid with extra funding for harder-to-teach students.

The Wichita school district, the state’s largest, would receive about $17 million more in general state aid next year under the plan. Beyond Wichita, 230 other districts also would receive additional general state aid, and 55 would lose general state aid.

Alan Rupe, an attorney representing school districts that sued for more funding, said the Legislature’s effort is not good enough.

“We appreciate the effort, but it falls way short of what the court ordered,” he said.

The trial court that originally heard the case and the state Board of Education have numbers indicating that about $800 million in additional funding would be needed to bring school funding up to a constitutional level, Rupe said.

The bill Brownback signed would give schools overall about $195 million more in the next budget year and about $290 million more in the year after that.

The four districts that sued the state are Wichita, Hutchinson, Kansas City and Dodge City. Decisions in their case, known as the Gannon case, extend to districts statewide.

Rupe said the next step will be for the Supreme Court to issue a “show cause” order for the state to convince the justices that the newly crafted formula complies with the existing court order.

The districts’ legal team will try to show it doesn’t.

He said he expects the court to move rapidly because of the need to get some sort of financing in place by June 30, when the current spending authorization runs out.

“The clock is ticking,” he said.

Court review

If the court rules the new finance plan doesn’t comply with the earlier order, the governor would have to call the Legislature back for a special session to try again. Ongoing failure to comply could lead to sanctions, including a possible shutdown of the school system statewide.

Landwehr said she thinks the bill will pass court muster. She said the committee worked hard to address the specific concerns the court raised, especially in terms of additional money for the 127,000 students now performing below grade level in English and math.

Unlike the earlier Montoy school finance case, where the court set a dollar amount and the Legislature had to authorize the spending, the court has left it to the Legislature to figure out total funding, she said.

Also unlike Montoy, the Supreme Court has indicated an openness to considering total school funding from all sources as part of the adequacy measure and student performance as the end goal, she said.

Contributing: Jonathan Shorman of The Eagle

Dion Lefler: 316-268-6527, @DionKansas