TOPEKA — Educators urged a legislative panel Thursday to boost education funding by $38 million to make spending equitable between rich and poor districts, but no quick consensus emerged among lawmakers over how to proceed.
The House and Senate Judiciary committees met jointly to wade into potential responses to a Kansas Supreme Court order that found school funding inequitably unconstitutional.
Lawmakers haven’t coalesced around the option that has drawn the most response: a $38 million injection of equity funding. Calculations by the Kansas Department of Education show the increase likely would satisfy the court, which has set a June 30 deadline for the Legislature to act.
Districts, educational associations, Democrats and Gov. Sam Brownback have endorsed the $38 million option, however. Speaking to lawmakers, officials with both Wichita USD 259 and Kansas City Public Schools prodded legislators to embrace the figure.
“Although this does not make our district whole for (fiscal year 2015 or 2016), this action, in our opinion, will work. Diluting funding, changing formulas or adding artificial provisions beyond the scope of the formula will simply continue the disparity and jeopardize reaching a constitutional resolution in a timely manner,” said Jim Freeman, USD 259 chief financial officer.
Lawmakers will return for a special session next week to formally tackle the school finance issue. The judiciary committees can’t advance legislation before the session begins but can offer recommendations.
A sense of urgency hung over the proceedings because of uncertainty about what might happen if the June 30 deadline passes without legislative action. One possible option would close schools, a scenario that has put educators and lawmakers on edge.
Sen. Jeff King, R-Independence, is co-chairing the judiciary committee gathering. He said recommending the $38 million boost is a possibility, but he didn’t endorse it.
“It’s an option, but it isn’t mandatory. The court hasn’t required $38 million in spending, and I think the Legislature should look at all options,” King said.
Rep. Jim Ward, D-Wichita, asked whether lawmakers were making progress, said legislators need an opportunity to vent and have discussion. But, he indicated, eventually action is needed.
“At some point in time, reasonable people have to get in a room and put together a plan and have debates on that plan,” Ward said.
Kansas City Public Schools said increasing funding by $38 million would represent the “most direct” way to respond to the Supreme Court order. David Smith, the district’s chief of communications, said that would put the state on the right path.
Smith urged legislators not to increase equity funding by taking funds from other parts of the school funding formula.
“Any attempts to redirect existing resources or to artificially add to school district funding in an un-equalized manner would threaten the constitutionality of the equity fix,” Smith said.
Though districts called on lawmakers to add funding, other groups put forward alternative options. The Kansas Policy Institute said the Legislature should enact a mechanism to ensure school districts are paid on time if schools close, and a last-ditch effort to reallocate equity funding should be made first.
Further, KPI argued if any districts close, students should be provided vouchers to attend the public or private school of their choice.
The Kansas Chamber of Commerce wants the equity funds transferred to the Kansas State Department of Education with a promise from KSDE that the agency will distribute the money in a manner that equalizes funding.
“Let the local school districts, superintendents, state board of education argue about that. Let the Legislature argue about what the annual appropriation is going to be every year,” Chamber President Mike O’Neal said.