Government & Politics

Landmark school finance bill clears Kansas Legislature

Kansas Gov. Sam Brownback won a major political battle Monday when the Legislature replaced its formula for financing local school district with a plan for two years of block grants.
Kansas Gov. Sam Brownback won a major political battle Monday when the Legislature replaced its formula for financing local school district with a plan for two years of block grants. AP

A landmark bill repealing the state’s school funding formula — replacing it with block grants — cleared the Kansas Legislature on Monday, pushing the state closer to a showdown with the courts.

The Kansas Senate voted 25-14 to replace the existing formula and eliminate many of the factors that provide extra money to school districts based on enrollment, student demographics and transportation costs.

Already passed by the House, the bill now goes to Republican Gov. Sam Brownback. He has backed block grants as a way of bringing stability to school funding at a time when the state is facing a massive budget deficit following deep income tax cuts.

The legislation passed less than two weeks after it was introduced, a fast track that spurred criticism that it was not thoroughly vetted.

And the bill will likely be challenged in court because it erases many factors that currently add money for certain needs such as educating bilingual and at-risk students as well as helping low- and high-enrollment districts.

Lawmakers made it clear they were game for a fight.

“If the courts want to insist on this course of action, it could well cause a constitutional crisis in this state,” said state Rep. John Rubin, a Shawnee Republican who supported the block grant bill. “We certainly have the right to legislate in this body how we’re going to fund schools. If the courts think otherwise, they’re sadly mistaken.”

Lawyers for plaintiffs currently challenging the adequacy and equality of Kansas state funding to local school districts said those factors were essential to putting school districts on an even playing field to address the needs of their student populations.

“What the Legislature and the governor don’t want to do is come up with any formula that focuses on the actual costs (of education) because that will involve a substantial increase,” said Alan Rupe, the lawyer representing the school districts in the education finance case.

Late last year, a three-judge panel suggested the state put about $550 million more into education, saying that Kansas public schools were illegally underfunded. It was the second time in two years that the three-judge panel called for more money for education.

The judges presiding over the school finance lawsuit signaled last week that they might block the new school bill while the litigation proceeds. The court even took the unusual step of unilaterally adding defendants to the lawsuit, including the state treasurer and legislative staffers who write bills.

Rupe said he expected to ask the court to halt the bill after Brownback signs it into law.

The court’s action last Friday angered some lawmakers, raising the prospect that the Legislature could be headed toward a showdown with the judiciary.

“It is shocking to have a court say they are going to interfere with the legislative process,” said Sen. Ty Masterson, an Andover Republican and chairman of the budget-writing Ways and Means Committee.

Relations between the courts and the Legislature have been rocky over the years partly because of a 2005 state Supreme Court decision ordering the state to spend millions more on public schools. Lawmakers have long argued that they — not the courts — control the state’s spending decisions.

Proposals in recent years have called for lowering the mandatory retirement age for the Supreme Court and stripping it of some of its appellate authority.

At Brownback’s urging, the Legislature has tried changing the way Supreme Court judges are selected.

Pending legislation would give Brownback the power to appoint Supreme Court judges with the consent of the state Senate. The governor now picks from three candidates recommended by a panel of lawyers and nonlawyers.

The bill, however, is believed to be short of the votes needed for passage in the House, but a showdown with the courts could give the bill a lift in the Legislature.

“The more they get political,” said Republican Rep. Scott Schwab of Olathe, “the more votes we get for judicial selection.”

The block grant bill trims school funding for this year, but locks financing into place for the next two years until a new formula is developed. The block grants expire in 2017. There is no fallback funding formula in place when the grants expire.

Heralded by conservative leaders as a way to bring stability and certainty to school funding, the bill eliminates many factors that provide schools extra money based on their demographic makeup.

The bill also gives districts the ability to dip into other funds to help offset any loss of state revenue, but it does not shield schools from any future budget cuts.

Supporters say that the bill adds more than $300 million in new funding for schools, much of it committed to paying the state’s contribution to teacher pensions.

Lawmakers supporting the bill said the current formula drives up educational costs and pits school districts against each other in a battle for more state dollars.

They argue that the debate over school funding has become muddled with misinformation as it’s become emotional.

“There are good people out there who believe false things. The vitriol coming through the emails is incredible,” Masterson said. “You’re going to have a school next year.”

The bill was largely supported by conservative groups, including the influential Kansas Chamber of Commerce and the Kansas Policy Institute think tank.

Locally, the bill also was backed by superintendents in the Blue Valley and Shawnee Mission school districts.

But many school officials from across the state, including the superintendent from Kansas City, Kan., argued that schools will be short-changed as student populations grow and evolve. They also contended that school districts will not be able to keep up with inflation.

Opponents of the bill questioned why lawmakers wouldn’t listen to state school officials over the support coming from influential conservative interests.

“The block grant bill represents the governor’s unconstitutional, intentional and futile attempt to avoid the clear directives of the Supreme Court and the trial panel,” said Senate Minority Leader Anthony Hensley of Topeka. “By passing this bill, we are standing witness to the unconstitutional disassembling of public education in the state of Kansas.”

To reach Brad Cooper, call 816-234-7724 or send email to bcooper@kcstar.com.

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