Chances for increasing school funding are gaining momentum in the Kansas Legislature with a plan that would add almost $80 million for schools this year.
The Senate has approved a $14.4 billion budget for 2012-13 that rescued a school finance plan from a committee where it had been languishing.
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It represents a significant move forward for one of the major issues that Kansas lawmakers have been wrestling with this legislative session.
But senators will have to win support in the House, where key lawmakers are reluctant to pour more money into schools.
The plan calls for adding $50 million to state base aid per pupil and an additional $27 million for school districts with less property wealth.
It’s all part of plan that also would give school districts some limited authority to raise property taxes with the approval of local voters.
“We think it’s very positive,” said Mark Tallman, lobbyist for the Kansas Association of School Boards.
“In a Senate where things are passing with one or two votes, this passed with broad-based support,” he said.
If ultimately approved by the Legislature, the plan would bring millions to Kansas City area schools, including $2.7 million for the Olathe school district, $2.6 million for Shawnee Mission, $2.3 million for Kansas City, Kan., and $2.1 million for Blue Valley.
The plan that won Senate approval was hatched by a group of Democrats and moderate Republicans as an alternative to Gov. Sam Brownback’s plan to rewrite the school finance formula.
Brownback’s plan, which would have given school districts unlimited ability to raise local property taxes, never gained much traction in the Legislature this year.
Opponents of the Brownback plan complained that it shifted more responsibility for education funding onto local school districts and didn’t adequately link funding to the cost of educating a child.
There also was concern that the plan would lock school districts into an inadequately low funding level and not account for increasing expenses.
The alternative called for raising base state aid by $74 a year for two years at a cost of $100 million.
With the plan locked up in a House/Senate conference committee, the Senate moved ahead with another proposal to increase school aid for fiscal 2013, which starts July 1.
However, the increased funding depends on the Legislature passing another bill allowing school districts to increase their local option budget by 1 percent so long as it’s approved by the voters.
Local funding is now capped at 31 percent of what schools receive from the state. Senators originally wanted to allow school districts to go to 32 percent in the first year and 33 percent in the next.
Johnson County school districts have generally backed Brownback’s education plan, but they see an opportunity with the Senate’s proposal.
“We still support the governor’s plan,” said Shawnee Mission Superintendent Gene Johnson. “But we’re also realists. Right now, it looks like this is our only possibility for some funding relief, and we desperately need some relief.”
School officials in Kansas City, Kan., said the plan was a good compromise. But they said it wouldn’t restore education cuts that the Legislature has made in recent years even though it does try to compensate poorer districts with more aid.
“We’re not getting back to where we should be, and where we were is not where the state and Legislature’s own studies have said education should be,” said David A. Smith, chief of staff for the Kansas City, Kan., School District.
While some school officials were pleased with the progress that school finance has made, they noted there’s still a long way to go.
The Senate’s vote “makes us very hopeful that something can be done,” said Olathe Superintendent Marlin Berry. “There’s much work to be done. We’ll remain optimistic that something can be done to help the schools.”
The plan now goes to the House, where lawmakers tend to believe schools need to spend down more of their reserves before they get more state funding.
Republican state Rep. Clay Aurand, chairman of the House Education Committee, said he thinks the House might be inclined to add more money for schools.
However, he thought there might be reluctance in his chamber to give schools more authority to raise property taxes — even on a limited basis.
Aurand and other key House members said the Senate might need to concede to a number of education policy matters that the House wants passed in order to increase state funding.
“We want some progress on making some substantive reforms and changes,” said Rep. Marc Rhoades, a Newton Republican and chairman of the House Appropriations Committee.
“The House isn’t going to say, ‘Oh yeah, we’ll just put more money in,’ without (the Senate) coming half way and saying, ‘OK, we’ll do some of these other issues.’ ”
Those policies include a teacher evaluation bill now pending in the House, as well as others intended to address court challenges over education funding.
In deciding the adequacy of school funding, one bill would require that the courts consider no less than 65 percent of all state money spent on education as going toward classroom instruction.
The bill, backed by Republican House Speaker Mike O’Neal, also would require anyone bringing a court challenge over school finance to have the burden to prove that the money wasn’t sufficient to fund the cost of instruction.
Those bills were packaged with several others Thursday and passed out of a House committee.
“I am hopeful this will allow for more of the Republican caucus and the governor to look at putting more money into education,” Aurand said.