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Kansas House Committee Advances Block Grant Bill

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Stephen Koranda
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Lawmakers in the Kansas Legislature are fast-tracking a major overhaul of the state’s school funding system. The bill would toss out the current finance formula and replace it with a series of block grants, which would last for two years as lawmakers write a new funding formula. As Stephen Koranda reports, the bill has been approved by a committee and is now headed to the full Kansas House.

This proposal deals with the single largest item in the Kansas budget, education funding. It’s had hearings in a House committee, was debated, modified and passed out of the committee in less than a week.

The wheels of government typically move slowly, but not this time. Even so, Republican Representative Ron Ryckman says lawmakers listened to concerns and made some changes.

“I think we were able to accommodate some of those concerns and bring more clarity to the bill, that ultimately provides more flexibility, less red tape and gives our locals more authority to put more money in the classroom,” says Ryckman.

The top Democrat in the Kansas House, Tom Burroughs, says the speediness is stifling discussion. “This rush to expediency should be a great concern to many because of the lack of transparency, the limited knowledge and the limited ability in which to testify,” says Burroughs.

Republican Senator Ty Masterson says passing this legislation quickly will undo budget cuts not long after they took effect. He says they’re not trying to fast-track the bill to avoid debate.

“I certainly don’t say that. The only sense of urgency I would see on it is the governor’s allotments just took effect. I think that’s probably the sense of urgency,” says Masterson.

But a school district wouldn’t make a major policy change this quickly. That’s according to Goddard School District Superintendent Justin Henry.

“Real change takes time and authentic discussion, not just putting something together and then in one week you have change,” says Henry.

Henry says his district near Wichita would lose $600,000 this year under the bill.

The financial uncertainty has caused them to put teacher hiring on hold and now he’s afraid they’ll lose out on recruiting good candidates.

“The longer we wait, the better the opportunity is for other states to come in and hire those teachers, and we may not get those teachers back,” says Henry.

While many schools oppose the bill, some well-known groups hope it could help districts get more dollars into the classroom.

“I think this gives districts a very large incentive to change some of their behavior.”

That’s Dave Trabert, with the Kansas Policy Institute, which focuses on limited government and free markets. KPI and the Kansas Chamber of Commerce support the bill.

Trabert says letting districts know exactly how much they’ll get for two years might spur them to try new efficiency methods.

“I think that does give them an incentive to start making student-focused decisions that will get more of their spending into the classroom,” says Trabert.

There’s $300 million in new funding in the bill over two years, which the bill’s authors have touted. But much of that would go directly to teacher pensions. Democratic Representative Barbara Ballard says that’s an important distinction.

“To say that and boost it and have the average person out in the state saying ‘well, they got new money this year.’ No, they didn’t get new spendable money,” says Ballard.

Much of this discussion has been prompted by lawmakers who believe the current funding formula needs to be changed. Republican Representative Marvin Kleeb says it’s time to act.

“I support this bill. I think there’s a time you have to clean the slate and begin over again,” says Kleeb. The full Kansas House is now poised to debate and vote on the bill, which could happen this week.