Kansas House passes K-12 funding bill despite warnings that court will reject

The House of Representatives chamber of the Kansas Statehouse is pictured July 23, 2014 in Topeka.

? The Kansas House approved final passage of a new school funding plan that phases in a $280 million increase in funding over two years, an amount that critics said is unlikely to pass constitutional muster with the Kansas Supreme Court.

The 84-39 vote sends the bill to the Senate, which is expected to take up its own school finance plan next week.

“I vote no on House Bill 2410. I look forward to seeing you all in special session,” Rep. Boog Highberger, D-Lawrence, said in his written explanation of his vote.

Highberger was the only member of the Lawrence-area delegation to vote against the bill. Democratic Reps. Barbara Ballard and John Wilson and Republican Reps. Tom Sloan and Jim Karleskint all voted in favor of the bill, despite some reservations.

Democrats in the House were split on the bill, with 17 voting yes and 23 voting no. But they all gave similar explanations for their votes, saying they supported the per-pupil funding structure and many education policy pieces of the bill, but believed the funding contained in it is insufficient.

The bill raises base per-pupil funding next year to $4,006, which, combined with some other provisions, will add $183 million in new school funding on top of the roughly $3 billion a year the state now spends from its general fund.

The Lawrence school district would see an increase of an estimated $3.1 million next year under that formula.

In the 2018-2019 school year, per-pupil funding would rise again to $4,128, which would cost the state another $100 million.

Shannon Kimball, vice president of the Lawrence school board, said that’s far short of what the local district currently needs.

“That $3.1 million is about enough to break even with our deficit spending right now,” she said. “But it doesn’t give us any additional money to start adding back the positions we’ve cut in the last couple of years. It doesn’t get us to where we need to be.”

Kimball said the local district has eliminated about 25 positions in the last two years, since lawmakers abolished the old formula in 2015 and froze funding in place through a block grant system.

During that time, she said, the district has been spending down its reserve funds, in part because of criticism districts across the state have received from critics who said they kept too much money in reserve accounts while still asking the state for more funding. But she said the deficit spending was also needed to continue providing employees with small pay raises and to maintain programs while state funding was held essentially flat.

The House’s special K-12 Education Budget Committee, which produced the bill, settled on those numbers after lawmakers failed several times to pass tax increases that would provide the kind of money needed to fund a larger increase. Originally, it had considered a plan to phase in a $750 million increase over five years.

Many conservative Republicans also opposed the bill. But Rep. Clay Aurand, R-Belleville, a conservative who chairs the House Education Committee, supported it, saying he believes “without a doubt” that the funding is constitutionally adequate.

Aurand and other supporters of the plan argued that the basis of the Supreme Court’s ruling in March striking down current funding was that roughly one-fourth of all students in Kansas were not performing at grade level on reading and math tests. The new plan, they said, targets funding specifically for those students who are lagging behind or are at risk of failing or dropping out.

For example, the House plan would fully fund all-day kindergarten for schools that offer it. Under the old formula, kindergarten students counted as only half of a pupil, even if they were in school all day.

It also increases funding for preschool programs that serve low-income children. And it provides more money in the form of “at-risk weighting,” additional money districts get based on the number of students who qualify for free meals, the measurement used to determine the poverty rate in a district.

It also includes requirements that the additional state money districts receive from the at-risk weighting be used for programs such as after-school tutoring that aim to bring low-performing students up to standard.

Still, attorneys for the plaintiffs in the school finance lawsuit have said they believe the funding falls far short of what is needed to fix the state’s school funding system.

“This is not even close to adequate,” John Robb, an attorney for the plaintiffs, said in an email Thursday. “Our guidestar has been the State (Board of Education) request for $893M over two years.”

Robb said the plaintiffs ­– the Kansas City, Wichita, Dodge City and Hutchinson school districts — also take issue with several other provisions of the bill such as authorizing the use of capital outlay funds to pay utility bills, “grandfathering” each district’s previous local option budget into a new formula, and subjecting increases in local option budgets to protest petitions and public votes.

After Thursday’s vote in the House, the Kansas Association of School Boards conducted a webinar to brief school district officials around the state on what both the House and Senate bills contain. During that webinar, KASB lobbyist Mark Tallman said he doesn’t believe either the House or Senate bill meets the Supreme Court’s standard for adequate funding.

“By looking at four or five different measures including inflation from the old, constitutional system, other successful states, historic rates of growth, State Board of Education requests, we really felt that the original plan of $750 million over five years was really at the low end of the money, and certainly at the long end of the time necessary to get there,” Tallman said. “In our view, we don’t believe it will provide the funding to achieve the educational outcomes that we want.”

Rep. Melissa Rooker, R-Fairway, a moderate who served on the special committee that wrote the bill, said she also believed the funding was inadequate, but she was more concerned about what would happen if lawmakers failed to pass anything before the Supreme Court’s June 30 deadline.

In its March 2 opinion striking down the current funding system, the court said it would not allow the state to operate an unconstitutional school finance system beyond June 30, the end of the current fiscal year. That would immediately halt summer school and summer meal programs throughout the state.