Guest Commentary

Kansas House had a better school funding plan than what passed

Speaker of the Kansas House Ron Ryckman
Speaker of the Kansas House Ron Ryckman

We teach our children to leave this world a little better than they found it. As legislators, we are entrusted with that same obligation: to leave our state a little better than we found it.

That’s why it was disappointing to see lawmakers opt for the same failed approach to school finance, an approach that has entangled our state and our schools in litigation for over a decade.

The Gannon v. Kansas case was filed in 2010 when the Legislature passed a school finance plan that it could not fund in the aftermath of the 2008 recession. Now, here we are again — on the verge of what financial experts predict is another recession — passing a school finance plan that even its staunchest supporters admit we cannot fund.

In fact, budget projections indicate the governor’s school finance plan, Senate Bill 16, will put our state back in the hole, taking us from a $900 million surplus at the end of last year to an ending balance of negative $757 million within the next three years. We’ve worked too hard to get our state’s finances on track to go backward now.

Most concerning about the bill is its “poison pill” that that leaves Kansans on the hook for an annual inflation increase not just during the four years of the plan, but in perpetuity. That means up to $100 million more every year from here on out diverted from our highways, mental health, foster care, colleges, nursing homes and other essential services. To have a shot at meeting this obligation in the out-years, the state would have to raise taxes, leave the food sales tax as is, re-amortize the state KPERS pension fund, continue diverting highway dollars and not allocate adequate funds to other pressing needs such as our troubled foster care system and overcrowded prisons.

After realizing this permanent inflation provision would lead our state back into a fiscal crisis, the House began conversations with school leaders and the governor about how to build a sustainable plan — one that would fully fund our schools not just for one or two years, but for the long haul.

That solution, known as the Kids First Plan, would have followed the court’s directive to allow for inflation, and it recession-proofed the plan so the state could meet its obligations to our schools in the event of another recession. This was in addition to the $3.13 billion that legislators — myself included — have approved in new school funding over the past two years, and the $3.71 billion already budgeted for our K-12 schools.

The Kids First Plan also recognized that investments in early childhood are one of the most effective ways we can close the achievement gap identified by the court. The plan would have utilized the interest on escrowed K-12 funds to invest more in proven early childhood programs.

The third component of the Kids First Plan would have expanded a children’s mental health pilot program that is seeing results in our schools by identifying young people in need and preventing teen suicide.

Unfortunately, a few days before the Legislature was set to adjourn, the governor backed away from negotiations on the Kids First Plan and opted instead to push for Senate Bill 16.

The vote was not about who loves schools and who doesn’t. It was about whether we want to make promises we can keep.

For over a decade, our school administrators and teachers have been distracted by school funding fights, not having the certainty they need to plan for the future. This bill will not bring our schools the certainty they deserve.

As parents and as legislators, we can do better. After all, we have an obligation to make decisions that will leave our state a little better than we found it.

Speaker of the Kansas House Ron Ryckman represents the 78th District.