TOPEKA — The Senate exhaustively debated in advance of a vote today legislation raising state aid to Kansas public schools by $231 million in a two-year period and implementing a new formula correcting constitutional problems identified by the Kansas Supreme Court.
The bill developed in the Senate would increase state support of K-12 schools within two years by $231 million over current funding. A plan passed by the House outlined an increase of $286 million by the second year. A key difference was the House’s inclusion of $20 million more for at-risk students.
An amendment unsuccessfully brought by Senate Minority Leader Anthony Hensley, D-Topeka, would have pushed the two-year expansion to $420 million.
“Those are the kinds of appropriations we need to put into this bill,” Hensley said. “Both the House and Senate bills are inadequate.”
Senate Majority Leader Jim Denning, R-Overland Park, said it would be folly to add to the Senate bill without first submitting a lower-cost plan to the Supreme Court.
“I feel very confident we’re in a good place,” Denning said. “If the courts rule we’re inadequately funded, we’ll come back and fix it.”
Passage of the Senate’s school finance measure, House Bill 2186, and approval by the House of House Bill 2410, would leave rewriting state law on public education finance to a House-Senate negotiating committee. Any deal would need to be approved by the full House, Senate and signed by Gov. Sam Brownback.
The bills emerging from the House and Senate generally would restore components of the Kansas school finance law used from 1992 until 2015. For the past two years, the state has been operating under a block-grant funding scheme expiring June 30.
The Supreme Court found the state’s system of funding public education to be in violation of the Kansas Constitution because a disproportionate number of at-risk students struggle with math and reading.
Under both bills, the base amount of state aid for each student would be indexed in the third and future years to fluctuations in the consumer price index. That would trigger annual increases of approximately $55 million, based on recent CPI experience.
The Senate adopted an amendment from Sen. Dennis Pyle, R-Hiawatha, setting a higher goal for expenditure of state funding in classrooms. The existing target for all 286 public school districts is 65 percent but would rise to 75 percent, Pyle said.
“We’ve been told that 25 percent of the students in this state are failing. I’m trying to raise the bar. If we’re going to add these new dollars, let’s send a message to school districts that they need to put these dollars where we’re going to get the biggest bang for the buck,” Pyle said.
A subsequent amendment approved by the Senate widened the definition of employee and expense included in the classroom-cost analysis.
Sen. Larry Alley, a Winfield Republican, couldn’t get a majority to back his amendment forcing divestiture of much of the $1.5 billion in reserve accounts held by school districts. The Senate bill would end local abatement of the 20-mill property tax collected for schools.
The Senate defeated a motion from Sen. Rob Olson, R-Olathe, to compel districts with less than 200 students to merge with a neighboring district. The Johnson County senator said low-enrollment districts were unnecessarily expensive and inadequately served academic interests of students.
“When you run out of kids to teach, you’ve got to think about consolidating,” Olson said. “To me, it just makes business sense to merge or realign.”
The Senate passed an amendment lowering state aid by $300,000 to districts educating 625 out-of-state students in Kansas schools. An amendment making it illegal for a district to hire lobbyists to work on behalf of public education was rejected. A 10-year sunset on the new school-aid formula eventually adopted by the 2017 Legislature was placed in the Senate bill.