Politics & Government

Wichita schools would get millions more under GOP funding plan

Kansas schools would receive a $500 million funding increase over five years under a new plan offered by Republican lawmakers, well below what a recent study said may be needed.

Wichita schools would see a boost of $18.7 million in the first year. The total increase for Wichita over five years was unclear.

Projected first-year increases for other area districts under this plan: Andover, $1.8 million; Derby, $2.6 million; Goddard, $1.8 million; Haysville, $2.3 million; Maize, $2.4 million; Valley Center; $1.1 million.

A House committee advanced the bill, and the full House could debate it within days.

“I think this represents a good-faith effort to try and get our state education system back on track,” said Rep. Melissa Rooker, a Fairway Republican.

Meanwhile, a new group that wants to change what the Kansas Constitution says about education introduced a constitutional amendment that would give the Legislature the sole power to determine total funding for schools. That comes in response to lawsuits from school districts that resulted in orders from the state Supreme Court.

Also Thursday, a researcher largely reaffirmed the results of a study of Kansas schools that recommended up to $2 billion in new funding. Lawmakers have expressed sticker shock at that amount and have called it unaffordable.

While voicing some concerns with the study's methodology, Jesse Levin of the American Institutes for Research said the report by Texas professor Lori Taylor was overall very good. He repeated Taylor's finding that a correlation exists between money for schools and academic performance.

The study included a range of possible increases, including a $450 million boost. The study authors said that amount would be enough to raise the state’s high school graduation rate to 95 percent, up from 86.9 percent, but would not otherwise improve academic performance.

"If you want to meet the thresholds that are in place, you probably cannot do that without spending more," Levin said.

The Kansas Supreme Court this fall ruled that schools are inadequately funded. The court set an April 30 deadline for lawmakers to show how they plan to respond.

The Legislature typically takes much of April off, effectively leaving lawmakers less than two weeks to find a solution if they want to start their break on time.

The $500 million plan marked the first Republican-backed effort to respond to the court. It came the day after Senate Democrats endorsed a $600 million increase for schools that was rejected by Republican senators.

Mark Tallman, associate executive director of Kansas Association of School Boards, said phasing in an increase over time can be appropriate. But he still had concerns.

"I think people will feel positive. It is a substantial amount when added to what's already been put in," he said. "There will be concern about the length of time to get there."

It wasn’t immediately clear how many Republicans support the measure. Even the lawmaker who offered the proposal expressed reservations, saying his own projections indicate the Legislature won’t be able to increase funding in other areas if they follow through with the plan.

“I didn’t have the money for a judicial increase. I didn’t have the money for higher education. I didn’t have the money for other things I wanted to do,” said Rep. Steven Johnson, an Assaria Republican.

Senate Republican leaders have previously denounced potential funding increases for education. Senate President Susan Wagle, a Wichita Republican, has said new funding would require a tax increase or significant cuts.

Wagle and Senate Majority Leader Jim Denning, an Overland Park Republican, declined to comment on the proposal.

Rep. Steve Huebert, a Valley Center Republican, questioned whether Kansas can afford an increase of that size.

“I think in some ways, we’re already at the point where by next year or within two years, you are forcing another tax increase and that’s concerning to me,” Huebert said.

Rep. Ed Trimmer, a Winfield Democrat, suggested $500 million may not be enough to satisfy a group of school districts that are suing for additional funding.

“I think we’re rolling the dice if we do this,” Trimmer said.

The Kansas Coalition for Fair Funding introduced a constitutional amendment in the House Tax Committee on Thursday. The text of the amendment wasn't immediately available.

The coalition was formed less than two weeks ago after the release of the Taylor study. Because it is a non-profit corporation, its donors are hidden, though John Donley, a lobbyist for the group, has confirmed that the Kansas Farm Bureau is involved.

Donley said Thursday the amendment "would clarify that the Legislature shall determine the total amount of funding that constitutes suitable provision for finance of the educational interests of the state."

Passing a constitutional amendment would require two-thirds support of both the House and Senate. It would then go to a statewide vote.

Some Republican lawmakers, including Wagle, have called for an amendment to prevent future litigation over school funding.

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