Fix averts Kansas public schools shutdown

John Hanna
Associated Press

Topeka, Kan. — Kansas legislators passed an education funding plan Friday after top Republicans rewrote it to gain broad, bipartisan support to satisfy a court mandate and end a looming threat that public schools across the state might shut down.

The votes were 116-6 in the House and 38-1 in the Senate, sending the measure to Republican Gov. Sam Brownback, who told reporters he would sign it. It was the second day of a special session for the GOP-dominated Legislature forced by a state Supreme Court ruling on education funding last month.

Lawmakers struggled with how to pay for a $38 million increase in aid to poor school districts for 2016-17 — in a dispute that ultimately focused on less than 1 percent of what the state already spends.

Kansas is embroiled in a lawsuit filed by four school districts, and legislators were fashioning a one-year funding fix ahead of a potentially more contentious legal and political battle over schools next year. The immediate issue was complying with the Supreme Court’s mandate to make the distribution of state aid fairer to poor school districts.

“I think that solves the problem,” said John Robb, an attorney for four school districts suing the state over education funding. “We should be able to put that chapter behind us.”

With Kansas facing an ongoing budget crunch, lawmakers avoided increasing overall state spending by diverting money from other corners of state government to schools. The new plan from top Republicans relies less on reshuffling of existing education funds than a previous GOP plan.

Besides bipartisan support, the plan had endorsements from school districts that both stood to gain and lose some aid. Robb said if the plan were enacted, they and the state would jointly tell the court that its order had been satisfied.

“Everybody ought to be just warm and fuzzy about it,” said House Speaker Ray Merrick, a Stilwell Republican.

GOP leaders’ first plan cleared committees in both chambers Thursday. But dissention among Republicans forced Merrick to send the plan back to committee for a rewrite.

The sense of urgency came from the Supreme Court’s warning in its recent ruling that schools might not be able to reopen after June 30 if lawmakers didn’t make further changes. Many have summer programs, continue to serve meals to poor children and provide services year-round to special education students.

The state has been in and out of legal battles over education funding for decades, and the latest round began with a lawsuit filed in 2010 by the Dodge City, Hutchinson, Wichita and Kansas City, Kansas, school districts. Kansas spends more than $4 billion a year on aid to its schools.

The Supreme Court ruled last month that the education funding system remains unfair to poor schools, despite three rounds of changes over the past three years.

The court is considering separately whether Kansas spends enough overall on its schools — and could rule by early next year. Brownback and GOP legislative leaders already have committed to overhauling the education funding system next year.

The state’s fiscal woes are complicating the work. Legislators are trying to avoid an overall increase in state spending.

Kansas has struggled to balance its budget since GOP lawmakers slashed personal income taxes in 2012 and 2013 at Brownback’s urging to stimulate the economy. State tax collections have fallen short of expectations 10 of the 12 past months, something the governor blames on slumps in agriculture, energy production and aircraft manufacturing.

The new plan taps motor vehicle fees, dips into the state’s share of a national legal settlement with tobacco companies in the 1990s and captures funds from selling off the assets of a state economic development agency to private investors.

Legislative researchers said 77 of the state’s 286 districts would lose some aid; 169 would gain; and 40 would see no change. Under GOP leaders’ first plan, 141 districts would have lost some aid.