Politics & Government

Kansas lawmakers need a school funding plan. Their options couldn’t be more different

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Bus line The Wichita Eagle

Kansas lawmakers will soon have to choose between two starkly different approaches to school funding.

One would give schools $90 million more a year in response to a Kansas Supreme Court decision.

The other would halt planned funding increases and pair any additional money with changes meant to increase accountability in schools., such as more performance reports and allowing some students to attend private school at public expense.

At stake is how public schools will operate and whether Kansas can end a lawsuit over school funding called Gannon that has trailed lawmakers for years.

Some education advocates and school officials say one last funding increase will be enough to satisfy the state Supreme Court.

But conservative lawmakers say greater funding should come with greater accountability.

Last year, lawmakers approved a massive plan to increase annual school funding by $525 million, with the increase ramping up over four years. The Supreme Court largely signed off on that plan but said it still needed to compensate for inflation.

Senate Bill 142 seeks to give schools an additional $90 million a year to make up for inflation.

The Senate advanced that bill in a 32-8 vote Thursday. It now heads to the House.

“We look forward to continuing to work with lawmakers to move this bill forward through the process and settle this once and for all,” Gov. Laura Kelly said in a statement praising the bill’s passage.

Meanwhile, school officials and education advocates pleaded with lawmakers in the House to reject House Bill 2395, which would eliminate the final two years of planned increases while providing additional funding for at-risk students.

“This bill is loaded with policy that is going to cause nightmares for the state to defend,” said Mark Desetti, a lobbyist for the Kansas National Education Association.

Supporters of the plan see a chance to require greater accountability.

“For the last couple years, we’ve increased funding and we’ve actually seen on our test scores go down,” said Rep. Kristey Williams, an Augusta Republican who introduced the proposal.

The House bill requires school districts to spend down some of their cash reserves, and mandates the state Department of Education to create performance accountability reports for each district and each school. The reports would include assessment scores, college and career readiness metrics and information on state standards.

The bill changes how districts receive special education dollars and limits state funding for bilingual education to four years for any one student.

Education advocates and Democrats fear the legislation could get the Legislature in trouble with the state Supreme Court.

“We’re on the one-yard line – I hate sports analogies – and we’re that close to being done and out of court and they seem to want to go back 50 yards and start all over and it doesn’t make political sense and it certainly doesn’t make good educational sense,” Rep. Jim Ward, D-Wichita, said.

The House bill adds more funding in fiscal years 2020 and 2021, but removes funding increases lawmakers approved last year for 2022 and 2023. Williams rejected the idea that lawmakers should add $90 million for inflation without making other changes.

“I think that’s a lazy response,” Williams said.

Targeting dollars to where they’re needed most is very important, she said. Her bill creates a new behavioral health intervention funding category for schools and also increases the amount schools receive for serving at-risk students that must be used for evidenced-based programs such as Jobs for America’s Graduates.

Rep. Brenda Dietrich, R-Topeka, said it’s more efficient and easier to gather votes when lawmakers use a bill that doesn’t have a lot of components.

“There are certainly some interesting policy options in the House bill. But it’s very clunky. There are a lot of things that just popped up that no one was expecting or aware of,” Dietrich said.

The legislation also creates a scholarship program that would allow victims of bullying to receive assistance to transfer from a public school to a private school. An investigation by a school principal would determine whether a student is a victim of bullying.

If the student is found to be a bullying victim, the student could take much of the state funds that would otherwise pay for their public schooling and use them to attend a private school.

Tom Witt, director of Equality Kansas, an LGBTQ rights group, said the proposal would only further isolate bullying victims and wouldn’t do anything about the bullies.

“It’s time to stop playing politics with children’s lives and safety,” Witt said.

By contrast, the Senate legislation has received a far more welcoming reception from most education advocates and school officials. But Schools for Fair Funding – an influential group of districts suing the state over funding – opposes it.

The group, whose members include Wichita schools and Kansas City, Kan., schools, pulled its support for the Senate measure earlier this month after learning that it provides less funding than the group initially thought.

A letter from the group’s lobbyist, Bill Brady, dated Thursday says the plaintiff districts think the bill doesn’t satisfy the latest Supreme Court decision and “we are not willing to stipulate that passage of SB 142 settles Gannon.”

Sen. Ty Masterson, R-Andover, said the bill doesn’t do anything different than what lawmakers have done in the past. He described the approach as “add money and trust.”

“We are Charlie Brown. We just keep kicking, Lucy keeps pulling,” Masterson said.

Sen. Molly Baumgardner, a Louisburg Republican who carried the bill, said she understood the frustration of a moving target, especially over Schools for Fair Funding’s shifting position. But she said that she believes in her heart that the bill does what the Supreme Court wants.

“They want an agreement and solution that we will fund,” Baumgardner said.

Jonathan Shorman covers Kansas politics and the Legislature for The Wichita Eagle and The Kansas City Star. He’s been covering politics for six years, first in Missouri and now in Kansas. He holds a journalism degree from the University of Kansas.