Lawmakers have just two months to approve a new school funding system — one that could include hundreds of millions in new spending — and the only proposal under serious consideration is still in a legislative committee.
They also must figure out how to pay for any increase. A top Republican senator said Friday that he wants a new charge on utility bills to raise the money.
And all of this will be happening as lawmakers try to pass a budget.
“I don’t see budget being all that difficult,” said Rep. Fred Patton, R-Topeka. “I think the difficult thing is going to be school finance.”
Lawmakers return to the Statehouse on Monday after nearly a month off. During that time, legislative work on school finance paused while the clock kept ticking toward a June 30 deadline imposed by the Kansas Supreme Court when it ruled spending inadequate earlier this year, citing academic underperformance by 25 percent of students.
House Bill 2410 will be among the first items on the agenda. The proposal would create a new school funding formula that calls for the state to spend $750 million more on education over five years.
The proposal boosts the base aid for students each year for the next five school years. It also funds all-day kindergarten and puts more money into early childhood funding, according to the Kansas State Department of Education.
Most school districts would gain general state aid compared to the 2015-2016 school year, an analysis by the department shows.
The Kansas City, Kan., School District would gain more than $7 million next school year if this version of the formula passes into law.
Other Kansas City area school districts also would benfit, including more than $9 million for Shawnee Mission, $8 million for Olathe; and more than $7.5 million for Blue Valley.
The proposal awaits action in the House K-12 Education Budget Committee. Before the break, legislative leadership hired attorney Jeff King, a former senator, to review the plan.
Senate leadership opted not to develop its own school finance plan and instead wait for the House.
Concerns over timing
Rep. Melissa Rooker, R-Fairway, pushed for a school finance formula she helped craft before working to amend the House bill now in committee.
Rooker said she’s concerned about the timeline, adding that the bill needs minor tweaks before it can be voted out of committee and sent to the House floor.
Lawmakers probably will take several weeks to pass a plan, said Mark Tallman, a lobbyist for the Kansas Association of School Boards.
“It’s kind of hard for me to see how you could get through the whole process in less than about a month,” Tallman said.
The Senate plans to use the House bill as a base for its work, said Senate Majority Leader Jim Denning, R-Overland Park. But if the House doesn’t act, the Senate will, he said.
Denning said the Senate is waiting for the House to finish its work. He said he prefers that senators be able to work on a school finance plan sometime next week.
Senate Minority Leader Anthony Hensley, D-Topeka, criticized Denning’s decision to wait to act on school finance. He said the Legislature has made less progress on school finance this year than it had at the same time last year, when lawmakers were responding to a ruling that school funding was inequitable.
“I think we should have started a long time ago to put together a plan,” Hensley said.
Denning suggested the House, as the larger chamber, has the more difficult task because the bill needs the support of more lawmakers.
“We’ve always thought by design they should try to clear it first, and I think they will,” Denning said.
Utility charge floated
Denning called $750 million in additional funding over five years too high. He said he would be willing to support $100 million to $150 million.
He is floating the idea of an additional charge on utilities as a way to generate the money.
He proposes charging residential customers an extra $3 a month each on electric, gas and water for a $9 monthly total. He estimated that would help raise $150 million a year.
Commercial customers would pay an extra $10 a month on each bill, Denning said.
“If the body’s willing to look at that, that would be the funding source for schools,” he said.
Asked if he was concerned whether people would accept that, he said: “They’re going to have to stomach some increase any way you cut it, right?”
Hensley said the increase could be difficult for those on fixed incomes.
“That is a very regressive way to fund schools,” he said.
Five-year plan questioned
Alan Rupe, an attorney for Schools for Fair Funding, which represented the Wichita school district and others in the lawsuit that led to the Supreme Court ruling, said he doesn’t have high confidence that legislative leaders are headed in the right direction.
He contended the Supreme Court will not accept $750 million because it is not enough, and that it won’t accept the five-year timeline.
After the last major Supreme Court ruling on school funding adequacy, lawmakers rolled out funding increases over three years.
“Explaining to the schoolkids of Kansas that they have to wait five years to have an adequate education seems contrary to what the Kansas Constitution requires,” Rupe said.
Lawmakers will need Gov. Sam Brownback’s support of whatever plan passes, unless they want to attempt to override his veto.
Some have clashed with Brownback over education funding. Many new legislators based their campaigns last year over better funding of schools.
In his State of the State address in January, Brownback called for a finance formula “driven by outcomes that provide more opportunities to our students.” He said both schools and taxpayers need predictability on funding and that measures of success should focus on student achievement, not total funding.
“I’m willing to work with people on school finance, as long as we get some reforms in the school finance that I talked about during the State of the State message,” Brownback told reporters earlier this week.
Rooker said Brownback’s comment about reforms fascinates her.
“What that’s saying is ‘my way or the highway’ and that is not the way to negotiate, period,” Rooker said. “He wants what he wants, that’s fine. But we as lawmakers have the power to decide to do things differently.”