Politics & Government

$90M more for Kansas schools? Plan in Gov. Kelly’s hands after lawmakers approve deal

Kansas lawmakers have approved $90 million more for schools next year in an attempt to end a nearly decade-old lawsuit over education only 11 days before a court-ordered deadline.

Democratic Gov. Laura Kelly has made ending the litigation a central goal of her fledgling administration. The measure passed Thursday with bipartisan support is modeled after her own school funding proposal.

The Senate approved the plan in a 31-8 vote Thursday evening. Hours earlier, the House passed it, 76-47.

“The Kansas Legislature took an important step today towards addressing the needs of our students, supporting our teachers and fully funding our schools. I’m proud this reasonable, commonsense plan was embraced with bipartisan support today. Kansans want their leaders to work together to move our state forward,” Kelly said in a statement.

“By investing in our local schools, we can ensure that all Kansas children – no matter who they are or where they live – have the opportunity to succeed.”

Kelly did not say explicitly that she would sign the bill, but she is widely expected to give her approval.

Lawmakers acted just in time. The Kansas Supreme Court set an April 15 deadline for the Legislature to say how it planned to respond to a 2018 decision that said public schools are not adequately funded.

Despite widespread support for Kelly’s proposal, Republican opponents fear Kansas won’t be able to afford the added spending in future years -- especially if a recession reduces tax revenue.

“We don’t know when the next ‘08 happens or something crazy crushes the economy,” Sen. Ty Masterson, an Andover Republican, said.

The bill comes a year after lawmakers approved a massive, $525 million increase for schools that is being phased in over five years. In its decision last year, the Supreme Court said lawmakers needed to add an additional $90 million a year to adjust for inflation.

The bill calls for a total of $360 million over the next four years.

The plan requires districts to produce academic performance reports on each of its schools. It also provides for an audit of district cash reserves (some Republicans say school districts save too much of their funding).

Sen. Molly Baumgardner, R-Louisburg, who led negotiations with the House during conference committee, and said she hoped the bill would be the final step to ending the years of litigation.

“It is as if the moon and the sun and the stars are aligning,” she said.

The Kansas Attorney General’s office must submit briefs to the court by April 15 explaining and defending the Legislature’s plan. The office has less than two weeks to prepare; Attorney General Derek Schmidt had originally called on lawmakers to finish their work in March.

The Supreme Court is expected to hold oral arguments on the plan in May and decide by the end of June whether it is constitutional.

Speaker Ron Ryckman, R-Olathe, voted against the bill, saying it was fiscally irresponsible and the state would not be able to afford it in the coming years. In order for the plan to succeed, Ryckman said, the state would have to raise taxes, forego cuts in food taxes, or cancel payments to the state employee pension fund.

“This vote is not about who loves schools and who does not,” Ryckman told the chamber. “This is about whether we want to make promises to our kids that we can keep.”

House Majority Leader Dan Hawkins called the bill “fundamentally flawed.”

“We have emphasized all session that we should take a long view and make sure that we can pay our bills. Not just this year, but next year and the out-years,” Hawkins said. “I cannot support a plan like this. Kansans deserve real solutions and responsible management of their various resources.”

On Wednesday, House Republicans unsuccessfully pitched an alternative funding plan in a last-ditch effort to replace the Senate’s bill, which leaders said was unconstitutional. The proposal would have given schools an additional $126 million over the next four years, invested $17 million in early childhood programs and provided $27 million for in-school mental health services.

But by the end of the day, House Republican leaders had agreed to vote on a funding plan that mostly resembled a bill the Senate had approved earlier this year.

Rep. Cindy Neighbor, D-Shawnee, spoke in favor, arguing the state’s education system is one of its biggest economic drivers.

“Kansas doesn’t have oceans or water. It doesn’t have mountains,” she said.

“If we can’t provide companies that come into Kansas with trained people, they’re not going to come.”

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.
Lara Korte helps cover Kansas politics for the Kansas City Star. She is a senior at the University of Kansas majoring in journalism and political science.