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School funding battle continues

4/2/2014

The recent Kansas Supreme Court decision in the Gannon school funding case is driving practically all of the discussion in Topeka these days, as legislators work toward a solution to the issue of equity of funding. The court has ordered such a solution must be in place to provide equity for all Kansas students and school districts prior to July 1, with serious consequences should the Legislature fail in that quest.

The recent Kansas Supreme Court decision in the Gannon school funding case is driving practically all of the discussion in Topeka these days, as legislators work toward a solution to the issue of equity of funding. The court has ordered such a solution must be in place to provide equity for all Kansas students and school districts prior to July 1, with serious consequences should the Legislature fail in that quest.

Incredibly, some legislators seem to want to call the bluff of the court, daring them to follow through with the sanctions ordered in the Gannon ruling. That is a risky approach, with an unpredictable outcome.

Fortunately, it appears that is a minority attitude, and most legislators actively are engaged in negotiations to craft a legislative solution that will pass muster with the court and deliver true equity to all Kansas schools.

The current proposal in the House would make adjustments to a few weightings in the school finance formula in an attempt to provide part of the funding for the equity mandate while refining the weightings. However, I have seen a computer run for the proposal, and if it were enacted, 15 rural school districts would be left with less state funding -- with no opportunity to make up the loss through increased local effort. Three of those school districts are in my legislative district. I am skeptical an initiative to address equity of educational opportunity, and which will require more than $93 million a year in new school funding, truly delivers on that promise if some school districts end up as net losers.

Additionally, there has been a large push to "bundle" a number of education policy items in the same bill that provides the equity funding. I am not a fan of such an approach, as it represents an effort by someone to include policy items that do not have enough support to stand on their own merits. They are included in the bill in an attempt to muscle them through with the funding everyone agrees must be addressed. That is a bad legislative practice, and it can lead to the enactment of significant policy that actually lacks majority support in the Legislature. Fortunately, the most egregious of the policy items have been negotiated out of the bill, and I am now at a point I can accept those items that remain.

Our objective during the time we have left should be to craft the best possible solution to the issue of equity of school finance. We definitely have a big conversation ahead of us regarding how to define and insure adequacy of funding, but that discussion is best left for the interim and the 2015 legislative session. The court put no deadline on the adequacy issue, and in fact, the three-judge panel will be wrestling with that issue for some time to come.

It is helpful and significant the Supreme Court stated in the Gannon decision all funding that goes toward education should be counted toward adequacy, but that outcomes -- rather than dollars -- are the most appropriate yardstick for measuring adequacy. It will take a great deal of discussion, research and reflection to appropriately address adequacy, and we must not rush that decision during the remainder of the 2014 session.

Time now is running short. The Legislature is scheduled to reach first adjournment in less than a week. We will return April 30 for the veto or "wrap-up" session, which is scheduled to conclude during the first week of May. However, if the Legislature cannot reach agreement on the school funding issue this week, we will be leaving a great deal of work to be resolved during the veto session.

I doubt anyone wants to see us drawn into an extended session like we experienced last year, when the session was 99 days long and we finally adjourned June 1.

Rep. Don Hineman, R-Dighton, represents the 118th District.

don.hineman@house.ks.gov

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