Kansas legislature passes school funding plan

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TOPEKA, Kan. (AP/WIBW) — Kansas legislators approved Democratic Gov. Laura Kelly's plan for increasing public school funding in hopes of satisfying a court mandate.

The vote Thursday in the GOP-controlled House was 76-47. The Senate approved the measure on a 31-8 vote to send it to Kelly. She is expected to sign it.

"The Kansas Legislature took an important step today towards addressing the needs of our students, supporting our teachers and fully funding our schools," Kelly said in a written statement. "I’m proud this reasonable, commonsense plan was embraced with bipartisan support today. Kansans want their leaders to work together to move our state forward."

The bill ties Kelly's proposal to increase spending on public schools by roughly $90 million to several education policy changes favored by GOP lawmakers, including a requirement for a new one-page online performance report on each public school.

Four school districts sued the state over education funding in 2010. The Kansas Supreme Court said in an order last year that a 2018 law promising additional funding increases wasn't sufficient because it hadn't accounted for inflation.

John Robb, an attorney representing the schools, says the bill still is not adequate.

"The math just doesn't do it," he told the Associated Press.

The court gave the state’s attorneys until April 15 to file a written report on lawmakers’ response.

“Worst-case scenario, all it does is buy us another year,” said Rep. Jim Ward, a Wichita Democrat who serves on the education funding committee. “Best case scenario is the court says, ‘That’s a good faith effort and we’ll monitor the case over the next few years.’”

But Ward, other Democrats and Republicans who support the bill see passing Kelly’s proposal as preferable, given an implied threat with each Supreme Court ruling that it could shut down schools if it finds that funding remains insufficient under the state constitution. Legislators are scheduled to start their annual spring break Saturday and return May 1 to wrap up business for the year. Oral arguments in the case are set for May 9.

“It’s something that the Supreme Court forced on us,” said Senate Majority Leader Jim Denning, a Kansas City-area Republican. “We had to act so our schools remained open.”

Some Republicans, particularly conservatives, question whether the state will be able to sustain Kelly’s proposed new spending without a future tax increase. GOP leaders also pushed a tax relief bill designed to prevent individuals and businesses from paying more in state income taxes because of changes in federal tax laws at the end of 2017, which the governor vetoed.

"We will have to raise taxes. We will not be able to lower food sales tax. We will have to keep the bank of KDOT open. We will not be able to make our KPERS payments,” said Rep. Ron Ryckman, R-House Speaker.

But most Senate Republicans lined up behind Kelly’s plan last month after the school districts suing the state initially supported it, then withdrew their endorsement and called for higher spending after the 2019-2020 school year. House GOP leaders wanted to earmark much of the new money to programs for at-risk students but relented Wednesday when it became clear senators would not budge in negotiations.

Backers of the bill hope a show of bipartisan support will persuade the Supreme Court to find Kelly’s plan acceptable.

“I think it’s the best we can do right now,” said Rep. Jim Karleskint, a moderate Kansas City-area Republican and former school superintendent.