House members dismissed a $500 million school funding plan Monday after haggling over it for two hours, sending lawmakers into a night of deal-making as they look for a solution that satisfies a court mandate without creating budget upheaval.
Lurking in the background of the school finance debate is the prospect of a constitutional amendment that would give the Legislature unilateral authority over public school funding. Attorney General Derek Schmidt offered support for placing the amendment on a ballot while reminding lawmakers they still need to comply with an April 30 deadline to present a plan with adequate funding to the Kansas Supreme Court.
After debating possible changes to the first school finance plan to be introduced this session, the House is prepared to revisit the topic Tuesday with another flurry of amendments aimed at winning broader support. The plan failed on a 55-65 vote, providing “another night to work with people and talk about ideas,” said House Speaker Ron Ryckman.
“There could be some other policy that gets attached to it that brings people along for a vote,” Ryckman said. “This is part of the process.”
Last week, Rep. Steven Johnson, R-Assaria, introduced a plan that would add about $100 million per year for five years. Representatives rejected a series of proposals Monday that included diverting funds to private school vouchers, adding $295 million to the five-year total and boosting special education funding by $40 million annually.
Moments after the House voted down the plan, Schmidt unloaded ream after ream of paper to present to a committee hearing on the constitutional amendment, which is on a fast path to reach the House floor later in the week. Schmidt used the stacks of paper to demonstrate the volume of litigation and school finance studies from recent years.
He said Kansans still aren’t clear on what the current constitutional requirement means.
“If we were,” Schmidt said, “we wouldn’t have the sort of disagreement I heard on the floor today.”
The Kansas Constitution requires the state to provide a suitable education. Courts have ruled the language means lawmakers should provide enough money to meet goals for student achievement. The proposal being considered in the House specifies only the Legislature can decide how much money to spend.
To pass the House, two-thirds would need to support the resolution. Schmidt said it is reasonable to ask Kansans how they want to proceed, but even if the amendment were scheduled for a special election ballot, lawmakers remain obligated to satisfy the supreme court.
“You’re going to work your way through this,” Schmidt said. “We are prepared to defend whatever you do. I’m confident you will do something. It would be nice if you did it soon, but I know you know that.”
Ryckman said “we’ll see” if the amendment gets a vote in the House this week. For now, he said, the focus is the school finance bill.
Democrats are sensitive to potential criticism for supporting a massive funding boost. From the GOP perspective, $500 million added to an increase passed last year totals $800 million in new funding.
Before debating the plan, House Minority Leader Jim Ward cautioned fellow Democrats to frame their opposition by saying the plan won’t solve the problem and to avoid saying schools need more money. Rep. Jason Probst, D-Hutchinson, asked at what point Democrats should consider supporting a plan.
“I don’t know what the magic number is,” Ward said.
To nudge the five-year total higher, Rep. Ed Trimmer, D-Winfield, proposed a $295 million increase to account for inflation to the base state aid from the last time the supreme court approved a plan. Johnson’s plan calculated inflation to overall education spending.
The call for additional funding sparked an angry charge from Rep. John Whitmer, R-Wichita. Trimmer started to say “no, no, no,” as Whitmer analyzed the year-by-year spending totals, prompting Whitmer to interrupt with a “yes, yes, yes.”
“I do funny math,” Whitmer said. “See, I like to keep track of how much taxpayers actually are going to have to pay.”
In another failed amendment, Rep. Brenda Landwehr, R-Wichita, asked to offset the threat of the high court shuttering public schools with a plan that would create private school vouchers. Several lawmakers opposed the plan because it had no end date, would deplete public school funds, and students already enrolled in private schools would be eligible.
“If you want to destroy public education and you want to create private schools, this is fine,” Trimmer said.
Ryckman said lawmakers are concerned about balancing a school finance plan through the fifth year. They also want to address contributions to the state pension system, highway projects, higher education and the judiciary, he said.
Monday’s debate should help lawmakers “get a better handle on what their numbers are,” Ryckman said.
“We have a lot of folks that are interested in making sure that there are other core functions of government that are protected,” Ryckman said, “not just the one that is constitutionally protected.”