Kansas House committee chairman resigns amid GOP disputes over school funding

? The chairman of the House Appropriations Committee stepped down Monday over disagreements within Republican ranks over a school finance bill aimed at satisfying a recent Supreme Court ruling.

The decision by Rep. Marc Rhoades, R-Newton, to step down came just as the committee opened hearings on a newly revised House education bill that now looks much more like the bill being pushed by Senate Republican leaders.

The bill would restore about $129 million in equalization money for poor districts that had been cut in the wake of the Great Recession. The Supreme Court gave lawmakers until July 1 to address disparities in what’s called “equalization aid” — money the state spends to subsidize capital outlay and local option budgets for less wealthy districts.

To help pay for that, the would make deep cuts in state funding for virtual schools and transportation, as well as funding that targets students living in poverty.

Rhoades declined to speak with reporters about his decision. But House Speaker Ray Merrick, R-Stilwell, issued a written statement saying he regretted the decision.

“I respect Marc and had complete faith in his abilities as chair,” Merrick said. “However, we will continue to move forward and work on an education plan that makes school funding equitable across the state.”

GOP divisions

Rhoades’ resignation brought into the spotlight deep divisions within GOP ranks about how the state should respond to the Supreme Court ruling.

“It goes back to the same thing I’ve been saying all session, that there’s a civil war going on within the Republican Party,” said Senate Minority Leader Anthony Hensley, D-Topeka. “Even now, with conservatives in charge, they still can’t get along with one another.”

Although the Supreme Court did not order the Legislature to approve any specific dollar amount for equalization aid, most GOP leaders – including Gov. Sam Brownback, Merrick and Senate President Susan Wagle, R-Wichita – have said that’s what they want the bill to include.

But Rhoades rankled those leaders when he introduced the first version of a House bill that also included language for a massive expansion of charter schools, something that GOP leaders said was never part of their discussions. That was reportedly added at the request of Rep. Kasha Kelley, R-Arkansas City, who chairs the House Education Committee.

Merrick then introduced a different version of the bill that deleted the language on charter schools, although it still contained other policy measures favored by conservatives. But on Friday last week, Rhoades told the committee that the discussion about charter schools still was not over. He also said he did not think the Legislature is required to restore the full $129 million for equalization aid.

Virtual school funding cuts

On Monday, as the Appropriations Committee opened hearings on its bill, Rep. Gene Sullentrop, R-Wichita, the new committee chairman, unveiled several amendments that bring it closer in line with a bill being supported by Senate GOP leaders.

Among those is a deep cut in state funding for virtual schools. Currently, each full-time virtual school student counts as 1.05 students – a 5 percent weighting that ostensibly goes for the additional technology costs associated with virtual education.

Both the House and Senate bills now call for cutting that and funding them as only one half of a full-time equivalent student.

The Lawrence school district currently operates two virtual schools – one for students in kindergarten through eighth grade, with 1,069 students, and a virtual high school with 325 students.

Until this year, the high school was operated by an outside contractor, K12 Inc., but the district took over management of that program in January after it posted a graduation rate of just 26.3 percent.

Lawrence Superintendent Rick Doll said the proposed cuts would end virtual education in Lawrence.

“We would not be able to sustain the program,” he said.

Alyson VonFeldt of Lawrence, whose daughter attends virtual high school in another district, said the online programs have helped her daughter excel and put her on track to graduate early.

“If it had not been available, she would have spent another year languishing in classrooms where she was overprepared, and she would have cost the taxpayers an additional year of funding that she doesn’t need,” VonFeldt said.

Transportation cuts

The new House bill also cuts transportation funding, although it’s a much smaller cut than the proposed Senate bill.

The Senate is proposing to overhaul the formula for distributing transportation aid, resulting in a cut of roughly $15 million statewide, including about $190,000 for Lawrence.

The new House bill would keep the current formula in tact, but cut funding by 5 percent across the board, or about $5.2 million. That would spare many sparsely populated rural districts from some of the deepest cuts, but would actually cost Lawrence even more – an estimated $395,560, according to state education officials.

The Appropriations Committee could send its bill to the full House as early by Wednesday, Sullentrop said. The Senate budget panel is scheduled to begin work on its bill Tuesday and could finish by Wednesday or Thursday.

Friday is slated as the final day of the 2014 regular session. Lawmakers will then take a three-week break and return for a final wrap-up session April 30.