Gov. Laura Kelly has said she has an easy solution for funding schools: Just renew the finance plan the Kansas Legislature agreed to last year and fold in an adjustment for inflation. But over in the Senate, lawmakers are picking that proposal apart.
After months of wrangling last year, lawmakers approved a $500 million multi-year boost for schools in response to a state Supreme Court ruling in the long-running Gannon case.
The justices said that plan made strides, but still wasn’t enough to fulfill the mandate in the state constitution.
The governor’s new proposal would add another $360 million over four years.
Kelly, a Democrat, branded herself as the “education governor” during the fall campaign. And she hammered on the issue during her first State of the State speech last month.
“We’re going to properly fund our schools this year. And next year. And the year after that,” she said. “Every year, every month, every day that I’m governor.”
A Senate committee held two days of hearings, where a parade of school administrators voiced support for the governor’s proposal.
They said last year’s funding boost, coupled with the inflationary adjustment, would allow them to continue investing in services for struggling students and plan ahead when hiring teachers.
“We can talk all day about teacher quality, but if we can’t plan on how many teachers we’re even going to staff, it hurts,” said Goddard Public Schools Superintendent Justin Henry. “You just don’t find them in July.”
The school districts suing the state said they would sign off on the proposal as a resolution to their lawsuit.
“Keep it simple, fix the problem, as this bill does, and end the litigation,” said Bill Brady, speaking on behalf of a coalition of 40 school districts, including the four plaintiff districts.
The Republican chairwoman of the special Senate committee created to study school finance was listening, but isn’t convinced simply passing the governor’s proposal would end the legal fight.
“I don’t think we have the assurance that it will be over,” Sen. Molly Baumgardner said in an interview.
The districts have asked that the court retain the authority to monitor the issue in the coming years to make sure lawmakers follow through on any funding promises.
Baumgardner also worries that the inflationary factor would cause costs to balloon even if student enrollment does not. After four years, school funding would increase automatically based on the Consumer Price Index.
“We are in unknown territory,” she said.
She doesn’t believe the governor’s proposal will advance in its current form.
The legislation is also missing funding for things that Baumgardner and other lawmakers consider priorities, such as classroom supplies and free ACT tests.
Republican House Speaker Ron Ryckman is also unconvinced that the governor’s numbers are sustainable. The state has a projected ending balance approaching $900 million for the current fiscal year, but the forecasts for coming years aren’t so rosy.
“Right now, if we do what the governor's asking, we’ll never be able to pay that bill,” Ryckman told reporters earlier this month.
Ryckman’s skepticism partially stems from his objection to refinancing the state’s pension debt, as the governor has suggested, to free up money for schools.
Lawmakers have so far shown little interest in reamortizing KPERS. Without that, Ryckman doesn’t believe the state can fund schools as Kelly has proposed.
“We have to find another way to do this,” Ryckman said.
Proponents have characterized the governor’s proposal as the last small step to reach a resolution on school funding.
To Republican House Speaker Pro Tem Blaine Finch, adding $360 million more is no small step.
“That’s not ‘almost there’ when you’re talking about a $6 billion budget,” Finch told reporters. “It’s a massive spend.”
Senate President Susan Wagle has broken up the governor’s bill so that lawmakers can tackle it in pieces.
The Senate’s budget writing committee will consider the sections that essentially encompass the current school finance formula. A new committee formed by Wagle will take on Kelly’s plan to further boost spending.
Wagle isn’t offering any hints on what those committees could produce.
“I have no idea yet … how the debate will unfold,” she told reporters.
Democrats, meanwhile, are continuing to promote the governor’s proposal as the swiftest way to satisfy the court. Lawmakers are under pressure to arrive at an agreement so the attorney general can file legal briefs by an April deadline.
Senate Minority Leader Anthony Hensley said Kelly’s proposal is a path to ending the Gannon lawsuit, and Democrats will offer it as an amendment to any school funding bill that comes up for a vote.
“This is a critical issue and it ought to be resolved, and we ought to do it in an expeditious manner,” Hensley told reporters.
House Democratic Leader Tom Sawyer said lawmakers don’t have time to craft a new deal from scratch.
“They’ve got to move quickly,” he said.
Stephen Koranda is Statehouse reporter for Kansas Public Radio and the Kansas News Service, a collaboration of KCUR, Kansas Public Radio, KMUW and High Plains Public Radio covering health, education and politics. Follow him on Twitter @kprkoranda.
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