Lawmakers in the Kansas House responded to a demand from the state Supreme Court to create a new school finance formula by giving initial approval to a plan Wednesday that phases in a roughly $280 million increase into the state’s K-12 education system over the next two school years.
But some legislators said they don’t think it will be be enough to satisfy the court, which could mean they will have to return to the issue during a special session.
“I’m never going to put my fingers on an unconstitutional bill,” House Minority Leader Jim Ward, a Wichita Democrat, said after voting against the proposal.
In an 81-40 vote, the House signed off on the new proposal after a lengthy afternoon of debate and a slew of amendments, which ranged from policy tweaks to a failed effort at a “bathroom bill” for public schools.
The new formula still needs to pass a final action vote before it heads to the Senate. Lawmakers in that chamber have already begun work on their version of a school finance formula.
In one of the most contentious moments of the debate Wednesday, House Democrats attempted to boost the funding level in the House formula by $600 million over three school years.
“If we send this to the court, I want to do this right the first time,” said Rep. Ed Trimmer, a Winfield Democrat.
But Rep. Brenda Landwehr, a Wichita Republican, defended a lower funding level, saying it wasn’t fair to pass a bill that the Legislature couldn’t fund.
“It’s real easy to spend other people’s money,” she said.
The effort to boost the funding failed on a 47-75 vote on the 100th day of the Kansas Legislature’s session.
Nine Republicans joined the House Democrats in supporting the $600 million boost.
Others resisted, including House Majority Leader Don Hineman, a Dighton Republican.
He said he was confident the formula lawmakers passed was structurally sound.
“None of us really know for certain,” Hineman said about the bill passing court muster.
The boost approved by lawmakers includes an increase in education funding of roughly $180 million next school year and then $100 million on top of that for the year that follows.
It’s still unclear how Kansas will pay for the more modest boost they approved Wednesday. A slew of attempts to pass a new tax plan have failed for much of the last month.
The Kansas Supreme Court ruled in March that the state had failed to ensure adequate funding for public schools. They also noted the state failed to provide roughly one-fourth of its public school students with basic reading and math skills.
Lawmakers have informally debated what a solution should look like in the months since. They were given until June 30 to pass a new school finance formula.
Alan Rupe, an attorney for the Kansas City, Kan., school district and three other districts that sued the state over funding in the Kansas Supreme Court case, called the plan passed by the House “just way short.”
“I’ll be sending my navy suit to the cleaners, because I think I’m going to have to go to court again,” Rupe said.
Projected budget shortfalls over the next two fiscal years have also continued to concern lawmakers as arguments over tax and school finance have continued.
During the weeks of negotiations over the bill, lawmakers noted it resembled the old school finance formula lawmakers threw out in 2015. A block grant system has been in place since then.
Hineman didn’t dismiss the idea of returning to a special session to make changes if the court isn’t pleased with the new formula.
“I hope not,” he said of a special session. “We all have other plans for the summer. But if we have to, we’ll come back and fix it.”