Since the Kansas Supreme Court last month found unconstitutional inequities in the state’s school funding system, lawmakers have been weighing their options.
They will convene Thursday for a special session on school finance. If they fail to agree on a remedy by June 30, the court could block education funding, forcing schools to close.
Republican leaders have said they are working on a plan, but they have yet to release any details.
Here are the highlights of some of the plans being discussed.
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Appropriate an additional $38 million for schools
This plan, which Gov. Sam Brownback seemed to endorse, would add $38 million in funding. The figure comes from the previous school finance formula, before the current formula was enacted during the 2015 session.
Brownback has not said where he would get the money.
In addition to the $38 million in new money, this option would shift funds from property-wealthy districts to poorer districts.
Lawmakers like this plan because the plaintiff school districts in the lawsuit that forced the Legislature to revisit school finance have advocated for it.
David Smith, spokesman for the Kansas City, Kan., school district, said the Supreme Court has indicated that the previous formula would satisfy the court’s order.
For several lawmakers and superintendents, this plan would be a short-term fix that would allow schools to open in August while giving the Legislature a year to create an entirely new school finance formula.
Yet it may be hard to pass a bill that reverts to the old formula. While the Wichita, Kansas City, Kan., and Topeka school districts would see an increase in funding, the three big Johnson County school districts — Olathe, Shawnee Mission and Blue Valley — would lose a total of $4.8 million. It will be difficult to pass this if all Johnson County lawmakers vote against it.
Appropriate $38 million plus $12 million in “hold harmless” funding
This option would add $12 million to the $38 million to make sure that no schools lose funding. The idea, referred to as “hold harmless” funding, means that every district keeps the money it has now, but poorer districts still receive an increase.
This plan is popular with some Johnson County lawmakers and was endorsed by a group of Johnson County superintendents last Thursday.
However, Johnson County schools wouldn’t be the only ones helped by the “hold harmless” money.
“For the sake of not just Johnson County schools, but schools all across the state that would lose money, we need to find that additional $12 million to hold them harmless,” said Rep. Linda Gallagher, a Lenexa Republican.
However, some lawmakers question whether the court would consider the “hold harmless” provision constitutional. The most recent attempt by the Legislature to remedy school finance, which was rejected by the court, included a much larger hold-harmless provision.
Shawnee Mission Superintendent Jim Hinson has said there is precedent for this type of funding.
“Hold harmless is always used when we write a new formula,” he said.
Dale Dennis, deputy commissioner for fiscal and administrative services at the Kansas Department of Education, said school funding legislation commonly includes hold-harmless provisions such as phase-ins, freezes and other types of guarantees to promote stability as a new formula takes effect.
No additional money
After Brownback appeared to endorse allocating the $38 million, several prominent Republicans said they are unsure that the court’s order requires more funding at all.
Senate President Susan Wagle, a Wichita Republican, said that the court did not stipulate a specific amount and that lawmakers may not have to add money as long as there is equity in the distribution to the districts.
This plan could appeal to fiscally conservative lawmakers because it would keep them from having to find money elsewhere in an already tight state budget. But this would likely result in greater losses for wealthy districts, which would prevent many lawmakers from supporting it.
The Democrats’ plan
Last Friday, Democratic lawmakers released their plan, which would free up $39 million for schools by making cuts elsewhere in the state budget.
The plan calls for freezing aid to virtual schools, which would save $7.3 million; cutting $15.2 million from the state education budget’s extraordinary need aid fund; repealing the tax credit for private school scholarships, which would contribute about $750,000; and cutting $13 million from a job creation program and $3 million from the welfare program’s idle fund.
The Democrats’ plan also would require shifting money from wealthier districts.
Brownback and prominent Republicans have already said they do not support this plan, and with Republicans holding strong majorities in both the House and Senate, it’s unlikely it would ever be heard.