Editorial: Botching school funding

Kansas lawmakers are stumbling badly toward a critical court date on the state’s public school funding.

This week, officials discovered that the school funding bill lawmakers approved over the weekend will provide $80 million per year less than they thought. The bill was supposed to, over the course of five years, gradually increase school funding by $534 million per year. Lawmakers voted to approve the bill early Sunday morning.

Except there is a problem. Turns out the bill actually phases in an increase of approximately $454 million in funding, about $80 million less than lawmakers were told.

Kansas school districts impose local property taxes to supplement state dollars. Legislators included a provision in the funding bill setting a minimum for local tax revenues to be raised and counted those dollars toward the state’s aid. But the technical language inadvertently created a calculation that replaced state dollars with local dollars.

Unfortunately, no one caught the error until after the bill was passed. That fact underscores how sloppy the lawmaking process can be.

The state Supreme Court ruled last fall that the state’s funding of public schools was inadequate. Legislators knew entering the session that rewriting the school funding formula was priority one. They knew that the court set an April 30 court date to review the plan. They knew that the court plans to close the state’s public schools June 30 if it doesn’t agree with the state’s funding plan.

Yet lawmakers still didn’t make progress on a plan until the final week of the regular legislative session, and then held pitched political battles up until the final minutes of the session. The chaotic process ensured that most lawmakers didn’t have the opportunity to study the bill before voting on it. If they had, surely someone would have noted the error.

Rep. Melissa Rooker, a moderate Kansas City-area Republican said there wasn’t time to study the details. “It’s disappointing. It’s frustrating. It’s maddening,” she said. “It’s a giant mess.”

“If you wait to the last minute, you don’t have time to correct your errors,” added Rep. Brett Parker, a Kansas City-area Democrat and English teacher who voted against the bill.

Republican Gov. Jeff Colyer indicated he still plans to sign the bill and work with legislative leaders to fix the mistake. But lawmakers aren’t going to give Attorney General Derek Schmidt much time to prepare for the April 30 hearing.

Last month, legislators hired a consultant to advise them on school funding. The consultant’s report suggested the state needs to spend $2 billion more per year on school funding. A second consultant hired by the Legislature reviewed the first consultant’s work and supported the conclusions.

Still, the best lawmakers could come up with was a fourth of what consultants suggested. And as it turns out, a fourth is really just a fifth of what was recommended.

It’s hard not to be disappointed with how lawmakers have handled the school funding plan, and it’s hard not to be worried that the state Supreme Court isn’t going to be impressed.