The Kansas Senate early Friday morning approved a plan aimed at fixing an unconstitutional funding imbalance between rich and poor school districts.
The Senate voted 23-17 to support a plan that gives local school districts the ability to expand their taxing authority with voter consent but also added controversial proposals promoting school choice and blocking spending on Common Core academic standards.
As the Senate debated its school finance bill late Thursday night, the House fashioned its own proposal, which is expected to be voted on later Thursday morning.
The House budget committee passed out a plan that also lets school districts expand their taxing authority. It also removed controversial provisions that would have cut funding for virtual schools and student transportation costs.
As the House veered more toward the political middle, the Senate signed off on some conservative proposals, including one aimed at stopping Common Core, multistate academic standards that set common learning targets for math and language arts.
The curriculum and lesson plans are left to the discretion and creativity of schools and teachers. The standards have been adopted by 45 states, including Kansas and Missouri.
The Kansas Senate approved a proposal stopping state agencies and local school districts from spending money on implementing Common Core without legislative consent.
The standards have been under attack nationally from critics who charge that Common Core will cede decisions about education to the federal government.
The movement for the standards was launched by organizations of state chief education officers and governors.
But federal support of Common Core weighed on state decisions when it began giving competitive grants and offering waivers from No Child Left Behind for states whose school improvement and accountability plan received federal approval.
“This is an issue I hear from my constituents regularly,” said Sen. Forrest Knox, an Altoona Republican and sponsor of the Common Core proposal.
“It’s an issue where the schools and the state school board in trying to get away from No Child Left Behind were pressured by the federal government to move in this direction,” Knox said. “This is an effort to bring this back to legislative control.”
Mark Tallman, lobbyist for the Kansas Association of School Boards, said the measure is a “major concern” to the organization’s members.
“Overwhelmingly, we hear from boards that they are comfortable and supportive and positive about the direction of Common Core,” Tallman said.
He said the Senate proposal means districts would have to stop their efforts to implement on Common Core. He said districts have been implementing Common Core for several years and he wasn’t sure how the bill affects that. He said it could mean schools might have to start again.
The Senate bill also contains a measure that allows for tax-deductions to scholarship funds that would allow less affluent and special needs students attend private school.
Lawmakers started work late Thursday on a plan to fix an unconstitutional funding imbalance between rich and poor school districts.
Lawmakers didn’t convene until the dinner hour Thursday after many attended the funeral for a House member’s wife earlier in the day in western Kansas.
The bill approved by the Senate would put about $80 million in new money into schools in response to a state Supreme Court ruling that found a wealth disparity between property-rich and property-poor school districts in Kansas.
The Senate bill contained a key provision that would give school districts the ability to raise more in local taxes to fund their operations. The measure is a high priority for Johnson County schools, which have long sought the ability to raise taxes to pay for education.
Local funding is now capped at 31 percent of what school districts receive from the state. The Senate bill would raise that cap to 33 percent.
The Senate on Thursday added a provision requiring all school districts to go to the voters before raising the cap.
The Senate bill would make about $50 million in cuts in education for low-performing students, transportation and at-risk students, among other areas.
The savings from those cuts would be redirected to help provide $129 million to comply with the Kansas Supreme Court ruling that ordered the state to fix the funding imbalance between rich and poor districts.
If the cap on local property taxes is raised, Johnson County school districts will be able to offset the cuts in other areas. But critics of the proposal said there is no guarantee that voters elsewhere in the state would raise their property taxes to adjust for the cuts in the bill.
“What we’re doing in reality here is just passing the buck onto the property tax payers,” Democratic Sen. Anthony Hensley of Topeka said during the debate.
Hensley, the Senate minority leader, argued that the Senate bill was just moving money from one part of education to another area that needs fixing.
“To me, that just doesn’t make sense,” Hensley said.
Senate Vice President Jeff King said the bill gives local property tax payers the opportunity to decide on their own to what extent they want to support education. He estimated that raising the cap to 33 percent could raise as much as $110 million statewide for schools if they take advantage of the law.
“We have heard over and over and over again when we debate education that the people of Kansas are in favor of putting more money into schools,” said King, an Independence Republican. “This bill gives them the chance to do exactly that.”
Hensley also criticized the Senate bill because it contains a mix of spending and new educational policies, including a measure that relaxes teacher licensure and offers a property tax break for parents whose children go to private schools.
Hensley tried to strip those policies out of the bill with a proposal that would have paid $129 million out of state reserves to settle the equity issue. His amendment died in a 29-11 vote.