Topeka — Republican leaders in the Kansas House on Friday said they didn't intend to include an expansion of charter schools as part of a school funding bill intended to address the Supreme Court's ruling on school finance.
And while they said they intend to introduce a new bill without the charter school provision, education groups said they still have major concerns about other provisions of the bill, such as merit-based pay for teachers, changes in teacher licensing requirements and offering corporate tax breaks for funding private school scholarships.
House Speaker Ray Merrick, R-Stilwell, said the bill was the result of negotiations over the last several days with Senate leaders and Gov. Sam Brownback, and that charter school expansion was not supposed to be part of the deal.
"Stuff like this happens," Merrick said. "I can't be in every meeting. I have no problem with charter schools or anything else. It just wasn't part of what I was negotiating."
Rep. Marc Rhoades, R-Newton, who chairs the House Appropriations Committee, took the blame for the mistake.
""The piece about charter schools was added in at the last moment at the request of a member and I take full responsibility for that decision," Rhoades said. "The intention was to have a debate about the issue in committee, never to undermine negotiations between the House, Senate and Governor."
The bill would restore about $129 million in funding for local option budget and capital outlay "equalization aid" for poor districts, two things the Kansas Supreme Court said was necessary to address wealth-based disparities in school funding.
Coupled with that, however, are several other policy changes that have long been sought by conservatives, but which education lobby groups oppose.
"We're obviously pleased that the money is in there, but there are other issues," said Bill Reardon, a former legislator who now lobbies for the Kansas City, Kan., school district, one of the plaintiff districts in the school finance lawsuit. "One is how they're paying for it, and another is the other extraneous stuff unrelated to school finance they put in the bill, bills that weren't able to pass on their own, i.e., the charter school bill and the corporate tax credit bill."
Reardon said education groups were still studying the bill to figure out whether the $129 million was being taken out of other sources of education funding such as transportation aid and money for programs that benefit at-risk students.
Merrick said there are some funding "shifts" in the bill, but he said he didn't know how extensive they are.
"I don't want dramatic shifts," he told reporters during an impromptu news conference Friday. "I want to get it to court, get them to sign off on it, and then get to the major policies."
Diane Gjerstad, who lobbies for the Wichita school district, another plaintiff in the lawsuit, said she would rather see the Legislature pass a clean funding bill.
"We think that the Court really made it quite clear that the Legislature should deal with the equity funding, and this bill goes far beyond that," she said. "We have concerns about all of the provisions that go beyond the funding."