TOPEKA — Since the Kansas Supreme Court ruled school funding inadequate last week, lawmakers have been scrambling to determine how much money will be needed to bring the state’s education finance formula into constitutional compliance.
So far, no single number has emerged as a consensus figure. But there are estimates.
Deputy education commissioner Dale Dennis on Monday shared one calculation with the House Appropriations Committee that showed $700 million in additional spending might be needed. Another calculation was lower, at $372 million.
He cautioned he wasn’t saying the amount would be accepted by the court.
Senate Minority Leader Anthony Hensley, D-Topeka, agrees with the $372 million figure. He calls for a base state aid per student of $4,400, adjusted for inflation on a year-to-year basis. That was the amount of base state aid in the 2008-09 school year, the high watermark of funding.
Alan Rupe, an attorney for the school districts that brought the lawsuit resulting in the court’s ruling, has placed the amount needed at $800 million or more.
The size of what is ultimately required is a key question. At a time when the state faces a large budget shortfall, a difference of hundreds of millions of dollars could significantly affect the Legislature’s ongoing tax debate.
But the amount needed also will be tied to the shape of a new school finance formula. When the Supreme Court ruled funding inadequate, the justices set a June 30 deadline to enact changes — the same day the current block-grant system for funding education expires.
In 2015, the Legislature scrapped the formula that had been in place since the early ’90s, replacing it with block grants.
“The previous system was thoroughly vetted and, when fully funded, withstood judicial scrutiny,” Rupe said in a statement. “Plaintiffs seek a return to that formula, with a commitment by the state to actually fund the statutory levels. Only then will Kansas schoolchildren actually receive the education promised to them by the Kansas Constitution.”
Senate President Susan Wagle on Wednesday announced the formation of a school finance committee. Senate Majority Leader Jim Denning, R-Overland Park, will serve as chairman.
The most prominent proposal currently, House Bill 2270, drew significant attention during a hearing before the House Education Budget Committee. The plan is largely modeled after the formula in place prior to block grants, with some significant alterations.
A second proposal that received a hearing, House Bill 2324, is “almost identical” to the formula in place before 2015, according to the Revisor of Statutes, the office that helps lawmakers write legislation.
Some lawmakers on the House K-12 Budget Committee, specifically formed to help develop a new finance formula, aren’t venturing an estimate on the amount that will be needed. Rep. Fred Patton, R-Topeka, said he didn’t have a figure in mind.
“My idea is that we come up with a good formula that works and then we figure out how much that’s going to cost,” Patton said.
Patton endorsed stair-stepping the increase that’s ultimately necessary. After the Supreme Court issued its last large school finance ruling a decade ago, it allowed the state to increase the amount of funding through multiple years.
Without a stair step, funding boosts on the upper-end of estimates — $700 million or more — would prove a massive task for the Legislature and potentially politically impossible.
Although legislative leaders and the governor have avoided statements accusing the court of playing politics, some rank-and-file members have been more publicly skeptical of the justices’ decision. Rep. Sean Tarwater, R-Stilwell, said last week the ruling didn’t necessarily mean additional state funding.
“There are some interesting, almost laughable, moments in this opinion,” said Sen. Dennis Pyle, R-Hiawatha.