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Kelly approves K-12 spending and more private school tax credits, vetoes cut to rural districts

Kansas Gov. Laura Kelly signed a K-12 spending bill but vetoed a portion that could cut funding to about 100 rural school districts.
Celia Llopis-Jepsen
File photo
Kansas Gov. Laura Kelly signed a K-12 spending bill but vetoed a portion that could cut funding to about 100 rural school districts.

Kansas Gov. Laura Kelly signed a controversial school funding bill Thursday that lets more families use state tax dollars to pay for private or home schools.

But Kelly vetoed portions of the bill that could hurt some rural school districts. That line-item veto could set up a court fight between Kelly and the Kansas Legislature over the governor’s powers to tweak a funding bill crammed with policy changes.

The state constitution grants Kelly the power to veto individual items of appropriations bills, but lawmakers in recent years have separated the education budget into a bill that includes both spending and policy.

“The appropriations for our public school system belong with the remainder of the state’s budget and should be evaluated through the normal appropriations process,” Kelly said in a statement Thursday. “Instead, the Legislature has decided to ‘logroll’ unpopular provisions into this bill — provisions that would not withstand scrutiny or pass muster on their own.”

Republican lawmakers could object to the move and challenge Kelly in court. Senate President Ty Masterson and House Speaker Dan Hawkins said in a joint statement Thursday that they “strongly encourage the Attorney General to immediately review this unconstitutional overreach.”

Kelly objected to a last-minute addition to the bill that adjusts the formula for calculating district enrollment. Districts currently can use the headcount from either of the two preceding years to calculate their level of state aid. Lawmakers changed that formula to allow only the current or previous year’s enrollment.

State education officials say that could mean less funding for about 100 districts that are losing students — most of them in rural parts of the state.

Education groups, including the Kansas Association of School Boards, called on Kelly to veto the bill, which fully funds public schools but falls well short of what Kelly had proposed for special education.

A veto of the entire bill would have required Kansas lawmakers to return to Topeka for a special session to sort out spending on public schools. Kelly’s signature effectively ends this year’s legislative session, unless lawmakers contest her line-item veto and decide to reconvene.

The bill provides full constitutional funding to Kansas schools for the fifth consecutive year. It includes $7.5 million in additional money for special education — about one-tenth of the increase that Kelly and public school advocates had proposed.

The bill also expands the state’s tax credit scholarship program, which lets donors fund scholarships to private or religious schools. The bill raises income eligibility for the scholarship to 250% of the federal poverty level, or about $75,000 a year for a family of four. It also increases the tax credit for contributions from 70% to 75%.

The governor did not line-item veto the tax-credit expansion, even though she has repeatedly said she believes state education dollars ought to go to public schools.

Kansas’ tax credit scholarship program began in 2014. Early restrictions made it available only to low-income elementary school children attending the 100 lowest-performing public schools in the state.

The bill also allows private school or home-school students to participate in sports and other activities at public schools. And it would give the Kansas Legislature the right of first refusal to acquire any property sold by a school district.

Suzanne Perez reports on education for KMUW in Wichita and the Kansas News Service. You can follow her on Twitter @SuzPerezICT.

The Kansas News Service is a collaboration of KCUR, Kansas Public Radio, KMUW and High Plains Public Radio focused on health, the social determinants of health and their connection to public policy.

Kansas News Service stories and photos may be republished by news media at no cost with proper attribution and a link to ksnewsservice.org.

Suzanne Perez is a longtime journalist covering education and general news for KMUW and the Kansas News Service. Suzanne reviews new books for KMUW and is the co-host with Beth Golay of the Books & Whatnot podcast. Follow her on Twitter @SuzPerezICT.