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Politics And Education Collide On Special Kansas Committee

Kyle Palmer

In the stilted nomenclature of Topeka politics, it's called the Special Committee on K-12 Student Success. While that sounds innocuous enough, this panel of 15 lawmakers — meeting for the first time Friday — could prove to be a major force in the roiling battle over the future of school spending in the state. 

"We are the eyes and ears of the House and Senate," says Rep. Ron Highland, a Wamego Republican who serves as the committee chair. "We will go back to our respective chambers and tell them, 'These are the things we've found.'" 

Consider the current political context: 

Last legislative session, lawmakers voted to toss out Kansas's long-standing school funding formula for a block-grant scheme. Districts have criticized that move, arguing the block grants give them less money. 

At the same time, a case before the Kansas Supreme Court accuses the state of under-funding schools and challenges the way the state finances education. Oral arguments will be heard in that case next month. 

And of course, looming over all this is the specter of statewide elections next year. Every single statewide office will be on the ballot in 2016. Experts think this could lend added urgency to the committee's work. 

"The politics of this may be the most interesting thing of all," says KCUR education reporter Sam Zeff. "Some believe there needs to be a new funding formula written before the 2016 elections. If some lawmakers lose their elections, it may be harder to get that written and passed." 

The committee's charge is broad, "The objective [sic] is to generate discussion, input and research to further child-centric education that makes the students, not institutions, the top priority." 

Some lawmakers outside the committee, though, doubt the group can make much headway in such rancorous times. 

"I'm not convinced with the three days they're authorized to meet, they'll be able to come up with an appropriate plan for school funding moving forward," says Rep. Melissa Rooker, a Fairway Republican. 

Several key members of the committee supported the state's move to block-grant funding, including Sen. Ty Masterson and Sen. Jim Denning. 

"These are budget hawks, and big players in the future of education funding in the state," Zeff says. 

The block grants froze funding at last year's spending levels. That has irked many educators around the state who argue the new funding scheme does not take into account increased enrollments. Locally, both Kansas City and Olathe have made significant cutbacks in staffing to close budget gaps. 

Still, conservatives in Topeka don't seem convinced schools are being efficient enough with the money they are getting. Just this week, Rep. Scott Schwab of Olathe sent a scathing email to the entire faculty and staff of Olathe Public Schools, accusing district leaders of lying about the state cutting funding. He argued that, in fact, the district had seen an increase in funding. 

More politics to add to Kansas's ongoing battle over how best to fund its schools. 

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