Kansas House committee adds money to K-12 bill, delays vote

Rep. Melissa Rooker, R-Fairway, left, talks with Democratic Reps. Ed Trimmer of Winfield and Tom Sawyer of Wichita during a break Friday of the K-12 Education Budget Committee.

? A House committee working on a new school funding plan added more money to the bill Friday for teaching students at risk of failing or dropping out, but it delayed a vote to send the bill to the full House until next week.

Rep. Melissa Rooker, R-Fairway, pushed through an amendment to increase the amount of additional money districts would get for each student who qualifies for free meals, a measure the state uses to count children in poverty, which is a major factor that affects students’ academic performance.

Currently, about 40 percent of students in Kansas qualify for free meals. Rooker’s amendment raised the additional money, known as a “weighting,” to 48.4 percent of the “base” per-pupil funding, which the bill would put at $4,006 for the 2017-2018 school year.

Rep. Melissa Rooker, R-Fairway, left, talks with Democratic Reps. Ed Trimmer of Winfield and Tom Sawyer of Wichita during a break Friday of the K-12 Education Budget Committee.

That additional weighting, which is three percentage points higher than it was under the last funding formula, adds another $21.3 million to the education budget statewide.

The committee had been trying to hold the total cost of the bill to about $150 million for next year, followed by additional $150 million increases in each of the next four years. The additional at-risk funding and other changes the committee has made, however, will push the first-year cost to more than $170 million.

Rooker’s amendment also reversed a change the committee made earlier in the week that would have required districts to spend a certain percentage of the money they raise from local sources for programs that specifically target the lowest-performing students in Kansas who are failing to meet grade-level standards for reading and math.

Under the previous formula, districts were required to earmark whatever money they received from the state in at-risk weighting to programs specifically targeting those students. But the change added on Tuesday would have applied that same principle to money that districts raise on their own through local taxes.

Lawmakers who supported putting that restriction into the bill on Tuesday argued that the Kansas Supreme Court in its decision March 2 cited the 26 percent of Kansas students who are performing below grade level in reading and math to conclude that current school funding in Kansas is inadequate and unconstitutional.

Rep. Clay Aurand, R-Belleville, who sponsored the original amendment the committee made Tuesday, said he wants local districts to put “some skin in the game” by putting local money into efforts to help at-risk students.

But opponents of that rule argued that it would actually hurt the districts like Kansas City, Kan., where 83 percent of students qualify for free lunch. They said it would greatly limit their ability to use their local funds for anything other than programs targeting at-risk or bilingual students.

Districts like Blue Valley in neighboring Johnson County, where only about 10 percent of students receive free meals, would have more flexibility to raise local money to raise teacher salaries or provide enhanced programs geared toward all students.

“Remember that while at-risk services are clearly defined, at-risk students take advantage of programs that are not at-risk,” Rep. Ed Trimmer, D-Winfield, said. “Transportation; utilities; heating, cooling and lighting; technology; activities; athletics; and even regular curriculum classes because of inclusion, at-risk students are in those. They just get extra services to help them.”

Rooker’s motion to remove that restriction passed, 9-8, the same margin by which Aurand’s amendment passed on Tuesday.

After the vote, the committee took a short break and was expected immediately afterward to take a final vote to send the bill to the full House. But one committee member had to leave due to a family commitment, so the chairman, Rep. Larry Campbell, R-Olathe, said he would wait until Monday.