The Kansas House on Tuesday passed a school finance plan that would boost funding by $500 million over five years.
Representatives again dismissed a series of politically charged proposals before sending the bill to the Senate, which is working on its own plan. Lawmakers face an April 30 deadline to present a plan to the Kansas Supreme Court with adequate funding.
Rep. Steven Johnson, a Republican from Assaria who introduced the plan last week, said $500 million is “a good first step number” going into negotiations with the Senate. With last year’s increase of nearly $300 million, the total spending level should be enough to keep schools open, he said.
“Certainly there will be opinions all over the map,” Johnson said. “As I look at the schools in my district and what we believe we need to be able to be open, even under the previous bill, we were able to meet those critical needs.”
Democrats have said schools are unlikely to accept the amount, armed with multiple studies that says as much as $2 billion more is needed to meet student achievement goals.
Little changed from Monday, when the House rejected the same plan by a 55-65 margin and Rep. Fred Patton, R-Topeka, compared himself to Goldilocks looking for a number that was just right. Patton, who is chairman of the committee tasked with providing a school funding plan, told lawmakers at the start of Tuesday’s debate he felt like Bill Murray reliving the same nightmare in “Groundhog Day.”
By the time House Bill 2445 passed on a 71-53 vote, Patton felt more like singing in the rain.
“I feel good,” Patton said. “People spent a lot of time last night asking me questions and going over the numbers to get more comfortable with them. So it was good to see people on both ends of the spectrum be able to vote for it today.”
Patton said he didn’t think support for the plan was tied to legislation calling for a constitutional amendment that would give the Legislature unilateral authority over the amount spent on public schools.
“Not that anyone told me,” he said.
Rep. Chuck Weber, R-Wichita, planned to propose rewriting the school finance bill to take effect only upon passage of the constitutional amendment resolution. He then reversed course, telling lawmakers he wanted to see how the process played out.
Before advancing the bill, House members adopted a revision to assist border districts with tuition for out-of-state students. No other proposed changes gained support.
Rep. John Whitmer, R-Wichita, introduced an amendment that would ban schools from using state funds in litigation.
“Essentially, you can’t use taxpayer money to sue the state for more taxpayer money,” Whitmer said in explaining his amendment.
Rep. Ed Trimmer, D-Winfield, and Melissa Rooker, R-Fairway, opposed the effort, saying districts already rely on local tax dollars for legal representation. Rep. Kristey Williams, R-Augusta, said the bill should go further, limiting the use of any tax dollars in litigation.
When Rep. Tim Hodge, D-North Newton, complained about stripping districts of the ability to defend themselves from unlawful action, Whitmer suggested schools could raise money through car washes or get attorneys like Hodge to work pro bono.
The proposal failed on a 49-74 vote.
Rep. Francis Awerkamp, R-Saint Marys, called for diverting public funds into a private school voucher system for students at schools involved in litigation. By suing the state, he said, schools are publicly admitting they can’t sufficiently educate students, so the state should give them an option to go to a school that can.
His amendment failed on a voice vote.
“Certainly there will be opininos all over the map. As I look at the schools in my
district and what we believe we need to be able to be open, even under the previous bill, we were able to meet those critical needs. And I think this will
continue to address those key needs in the schools. Wile the aspiration goal of 95
percent is the correct direction, it’s not one that we will see happen this fall.
And think this let’s us keep taking the steps toward those goals.”