By Jonathan Shorman

Topeka Captial-Journal

As legislation replacing the state school finance formula with block grants appears headed toward final passage in the Senate within days, opponents have seized upon the speed the bill is being sent through the lawmaking process.

The breakneck pace differs from how almost all other legislation has been handled this year and in the past.

It is as if the U.S. Congress had passed the Affordable Care Act a week after its introduction, Washburn University political science professor Bob Beatty said.

Beatty said the school finance debate is of comparable importance and scope to Kansas as the healthcare debate was for the nation. Education spending makes up the largest chunk of state expenditures.

The House passed Senate Bill 7 on Friday in a close 64-57 vote after holding the roll open for nearly two hours in an effort to summon absent members to the floor. The vote came only a week after the bill was introduced.

The measure scraps the current school funding formula -- which funnels more than $4 billion to districts annually -- and instead implements a block grant system for two years. The idea is that lawmakers will craft a new formula within two years.

The legislation, easily the most controversial of the session so far, may prove to be the most divisive of the entire year. The state's educational associations and many school districts have come out against it, saying districts will receive less funding -- though supporters say overall funding will receive a boost of more than $300 million.

In an ideal world, Beatty said, the block grant funding proposal would have been part of the governor's race.

"This is obviously the opposite (of what has happened) and the reason is the reality is the longer a piece of legislation that is controversial is out there the more chance one side is giving the opposition time to rally its forces," Beatty said.

During the governor's race, much of the educational community came out in support of Democrat Paul Davis in an effort to defeat Republican Gov. Sam Brownback. That same energy against Brownback could still potentially be tapped to oppose changes to school financing.

"It's very rare (to move legislation this fast) because it has to be something that's really perceived as: 'This is not going to happen unless we do it this way quickly, some would say figuratively in the middle of the night,'" Beatty said.

Supporters of the legislation have fended off criticism of the speed, however. House Appropriations Committee Chairman Rep. Ron Ryckman Jr., R-Olathe, said amendments have been made to the bill based on conversations with school superintendents. And Rep. Mike Kiegerel, R-Olathe, said the outline of the bill has been known for some time.

Brownback proposed moving to a two-year block grant system in January, though legislation didn't emerge until just over a week ago.

"If not now, when? That's the question: Is this thing being rammed through? It's been discussed in various committees. It's been discussed in broad strokes before," Kiegerel said during floor debate, adding that the House was holding a long debate.

The Legislature has taken a different approach to school finance legislation this time around than it did in the early '90s when the current formula was approved, Senate Minority Leader Anthony Hensley, D-Topeka, said. Hensley, who was in the Legislature at the time, said a slower approach was used.

Two interim studies were performed, the senator said: one in 1991 and one in 1992. The 1992 session was devoted primarily to creating and crafting a formula, he said.

"I think that's what you have to do in order to change a formula that at times really wasn't working because there was a lot of disparity in school districts, not only in the expenditures per pupil but also in the area of property taxes," Hensley said.

The long process described by Hensley may still take place in the next two years as a permanent formula is developed. But it won't happen this year for the current proposal.

The legislation is likely to be considered by the Senate next week and potentially be on Brownback's desk within days.