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Archive for Tuesday, January 10, 2006

Positive signs

They probably weren’t happy with the figures, but it seemed Monday like state legislators were ready to go to work on the state’s school finance challenge.

January 10, 2006

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Although many Kansas legislators probably were hoping the Division of Post Audit would come up with a smaller figure when determining how much money the state needs to raise for public schools, lawmakers seemed to be taking Monday's report in stride.

In fact, Monday's response was refreshing compared to the angry rhetoric of last spring when the Kansas Supreme Court ruled that legislators weren't fulfilling their constitutional duty to adequately fund public schools. Legislators on Monday weren't railing against the court or threatening to ignore the figures in the audit. They seemed to understand the need to boost education funding and were focused on how that could be accomplished.

As noted, the figures in the report were higher than some had hoped for. By the two measures the legislators requested, the auditors concluded the state would have to spend between $316 million and $399 million more a year to provide a suitable education for Kansas children. Legislative officials have said the figures will be hard to ignore, but they almost certainly will be debated. Even the most sophisticated statistical analysis can't place a guaranteed price tag on academic success.

The audit recommendation is sizable, an amount that legislators seemed to agree would be difficult to raise without new revenue either from taxes or some other source, such as increased gaming in the state. The task would be difficult but not impossible, some determined legislators contended.

A multiyear approach to school funding seems to be gaining some traction. House Speaker Doug Mays and Gov. Kathleen Sebelius said last week that they were discussing a multiyear approach. That Mays and Sebelius are talking about any policy matter and appear to be finding some common ground is an encouraging sign for the session. Mays' withdrawal from the GOP gubernatorial race may clear the way for some healthy bipartisan collaboration in the 2006 session, a move that would be welcomed by many Kansans.

House Majority Leader Derek Schmidt also said Monday that the Legislature should consider a multiyear approach. The main dissent on that strategy came from Alan Rupe, an attorney representing the plaintiffs in the school finance lawsuit. After waiting for so long for additional funding, Rupe said, his clients "are insulted" by talk of anything less than a one-year solution.

Their impatience is understandable, but Rupe and his clients may have to change their attitude. The Kansas Supreme Court clearly is holding the Legislature's feet to the fire on this issue. The justices aren't likely to accept a 10-year phase-in and they certainly aren't going to allow the Legislature to bail out in the middle of a multiyear plan. But an aggressive, relatively short term plan that balances school funding needs against the state's budget challenges could be reasonable.

Schmidt also noted that the Post Audit report, for the first time, gave legislators what he termed "credible data" to work with in its efforts to fund and improve Kansas schools. That should make the debate less abstract and more directed at actual school improvements.

The amount is challenging, but the comments are promising. Politics is likely to be a factor in this debate, but the fact that there seems to be some initial agreement across party lines is a positive sign for a productive discussion and resolution of the state's school finance issues.

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