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School funding plan may not get to full House before next week

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Kansas lawmakers may have to wait at least several more days before they get a chance to debate and vote on a proposed new formula for funding public schools.

That's one of the Legislature's "must-do" tasks this year because the Kansas Supreme Court has said the block grant formula that has been funding schools for the last two years is unconstitutional and must be replaced by June 30 if schools are to remain open.

Just before lawmakers adjourned in early April for a three-week break, a House committee that has been working on a new formula settled on the outline of a plan that would add roughly $150 million in new base per-pupil funding over each of the next five years. It also would fully fund all-day kindergarten and make a number of other policy changes.

That means by the 2021-2022 school year, the state would be spending at least $750 million a year more than the state spends now, and the cost could go even higher, depending on enrollment growth and other factors.

During a meeting Tuesday, members of that committee got a refresher summary of all the things contained in that bill, and Chairman Larry Campbell, R-Olathe, laid out his schedule on how to proceed.

On Wednesday, he said, the group will hear from Taxation Committee Chairman Rep. Steve Johnson, R-Assaria, about possible revenue sources to pay for the plan, and the possibility of packaging those tax provisions together with the spending and policy changes all into one bill.

Then on Thursday, the committee will hear from the Legislature's newly hired legal counsel, former Sen. Jeff King, who will offer his advice about whether the plan would meet the constitutional requirements laid out by the Supreme Court.

Rep. Jim Karleskint, R-Tonganoxie, who serves on the committee, said that means it could take until Monday of next week before the bill is sent to the full House.

"It's not perfect. Not everything I wanted is in it. It doesn't include everything I think it should, but I'm overall pleased with the product," Karleskint said. "We've got a long way to go."

Rep. Melissa Rooker, R-Fairway, said she was pleased with the bill as well, adding that the business and education communities in her Johnson County district expressed strong support for it during the recent break.

"Very, very, very loud support from the audiences that I was addressing, my constituents," Rooker said.

One piece of the bill that may prove controversial, however, is a provision that extends, but puts new limits on, a program that offers tax credits to corporations that contribute to scholarship funds to enable certain low-income students in troubled public schools to attend private schools.

That program was established two years ago when conservatives had solid majorities in both chambers. But Democrats and moderate Republicans made big gains in the 2016 elections, especially in the House, and many of them would prefer to repeal that program entirely.

But of the key Democrats on the House panel, Reps. Tom Sawyer and Henry Helgerson, both of Wichita, said they were comfortable with the compromise that had been reached. That compromise requires the private schools receiving the money to be state accredited and to meet certain minimum academic performance standards.

Just how long it takes to get to the full House could determine how long it will take to get through the rest of the session. Earlier in the day Tuesday, support in the Senate collapsed for a proposed income tax plan aimed at closing a projected budget shortfall next year.

Democrats and some moderate Republicans said they first want to see how much the school finance plan is going to cost before they vote on a tax bill, and some would prefer to vote on a single, comprehensive tax bill rather than having to pass multiple tax bills to address different parts of the budget. Republican leaders in the Senate, however, are saying they want to keep the school finance and budget-balancing tax issues separate.

Some lawmakers are concerned, though, that putting the school funding formula and a tax plan to pay for it all in one bill could raise constitutional issues. The Kansas Constitution generally prohibits the Legislature from passing bills that contain multiple subjects. But others point out that lawmakers did that in 1992 when they passed the last school finance plan, which established both a statewide per-pupil funding formula and a uniform statewide property tax to help pay for it.

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