Politics & Government

Kansas Gov. Kelly and House GOP clash on school funding as deadline approaches

Incoming Kansas Gov. Laura Kelly talks about education budget

Critics of Kansas' education funding allocation allege that school administration takes too much money from the classroom. Incoming Gov. Laura Kelly disputed that idea in an interview in the Topeka State Capitol on Jan. 7, 2019.
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Critics of Kansas' education funding allocation allege that school administration takes too much money from the classroom. Incoming Gov. Laura Kelly disputed that idea in an interview in the Topeka State Capitol on Jan. 7, 2019.

As Kansas lawmakers face a looming deadline to approve a school funding plan, House Republican leaders are backing an approach Gov. Laura Kelly predicts the state Supreme Court would reject.

The House plan eliminates two years of previously approved funding increases.

But House Republicans question the affordability of Kelly’s plan.

With three weeks until an April 15 court deadline, Kelly and a bipartisan coalition of senators are at odds with House Republicans over how to respond to a Kansas Supreme Court decision that said the state isn’t constitutionally funding schools.

The divisions threaten to keep the school funding debate going until the last minute. Lawmakers effectively have just days to resolve the dispute because of a three-week break that begins April 6.

The Supreme Court last year largely signed off on the state’s formula for funding education, but faulted lawmakers for not including money to adjust for inflation.

Kelly and a large majority of senators have made clear they want to cover the inflation adjustment by boosting school funding by about $90 million a year. They otherwise want to leave the formula more or less alone.

Kelly has proposed — and the Senate has passed — a bill doing just that.

On the other hand, House Republican leaders want to pair increased accountability of schools with other changes to funding.

Under their plan, House Bill 2395, schools won’t receive funding increases for the 2021 and 2022 school years that the Legislature passed and Gov. Jeff Colyer signed into law last year. Instead, they will get more funding — including an inflation adjustment — during the 2019 and 2020 school years than what is in current law.

“What we did in our bill is we pledged out four years, that we will put this $92 million in for four years,” Kelly said at a town hall event Saturday. “The House bill, I believe, cuts that off at two and I can tell you that will not be good enough for the court.”

Much of the additional funding in the House plan would be used to help students most at risk of failing – a major selling point for the bill’s supporters.

They say stopping funding increases after two years is a way to take stock of the progress that’s been made with the money.

“What we’re saying beyond that: Let’s stop, let’s assess, let’s let future legislatures evaluate,” said Rep. Kristey Williams, an Augusta Republican who will carry the bill on the floor.

The House could debate the bill as early as Tuesday.

Williams said the bill goes “above and beyond” to meet the requests of the Supreme Court by accounting for inflation. Targeting the funding to at-risk students is in line with what the court wants, she contends.

House Republicans also want to pair funding with greater accountability measures. A separate bill approved Tuesday would require one-page performance reports on schools and districts to be made easily accessible to parents and the public.

The measure, Senate Bill 16, would also create a bullying hotline that would be used to gather data about the prevalence of bullying statewide. It would require the state Department of Education to study whether computer science and personal financial literacy courses should be required to graduate high school.

The bill also says schools can receive additional funding to help teach a bilingual student for seven years. There isn’t a limit in state law right now.

The House passed the bill with 63 votes, the minimum number needed.

Democrats fear the changes will give the Supreme Court a fresh opportunity to find problems with how Kansas funds schools.

“The policy portion of the Gannon suit has already been settled and this bill merely opens the state to further potential litigation,” House Minority Leader Tom Sawyer and other Democrats said in a statement explaining why they voted against it. “The Kansas Supreme Court made their position very clear.”

But House Speaker Ron Ryckman, R-Olathe, told Republican lawmakers he can make a better case for the constitutionality of the House plan than the Senate plan.

Some Republicans doubt the Kansas budget will support the additional $90 million for schools in the years to come without cuts or tax increases.

“I can also tell you the one the Senate passed, it won’t be funded. The court will keep it for four years, we’ll not be able to fund it, and we’re right back,” Ryckman said Monday.

Ultimately, the House and the Senate appear headed toward a conference committee where negotiators will attempt to reach a compromise.

The Senate is unlikely to back off its position easily. Senators passed their school funding plan 32-8.

Sen. Molly Baumgardner, a Louisburg Republican who chairs a Senate committee on education finance, said the courts want a four-year plan.

“The courts were very clear in their ruling and they said pay out over the course of four years,” Baumgardner said.

Meanwhile, the clock will be ticking.

In February, Kansas Attorney General Derek Schmidt asked lawmakers to complete their work by March 1 if they made significant changes to the state’s school finance law, or March 15 if they made only an inflation adjustment.

Schmidt said in a Feb. 5 letter that those dates would give the state’s attorneys ample time to understand the legislation and prepare briefs for the court.

Under either scenario, lawmakers have blown past Schmidt’s timetable.

Still, Schmidt said he’ll try hard.

“I want to assure you we will do our absolute best to properly prepare and present the State’s position once the legislature acts,” Schmidt wrote, “whenever that may be.”

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.


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