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After Kansas Schools Report IDs $2 Billion Price Tag , Lawmakers Explore Work-around

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Kansas News Service
Worry about meeting court demands on aid to local school districts has rejuvinated efforts to amend the Kansas Constitution.

A report commissioned by the Kansas Legislature made clear just how much it might cost to improve student outcomes at public schools.

It’s so expensive, says a new lobbying group, that it threatens the quality of Kansas roads, health care and other government functions.

That fledgling outfit wants to amend the state constitution, freeing lawmakers to dodge steep hikes in school spending. External experts argue that added money would be needed to fulfill promises to graduate high school students better prepared for college or the workplace.

John Donley, a lobbyist for the freshly minted Kansas Coalition for Fair Funding, says his group’s goal will be to “allow all functions of government to be funded — not necessarily just K-12.”

“We are reaching out to anyone who has an interest in the issue,” he said.

The idea that aid to local school districts may be in conflict with other priorities isn’t new. But it but gained steam in recent months amid a Kansas Supreme Court ruling in October that found school funding inadequate.

In December, lawmakers asked state agency officials to testify about how it would hurt everything from state universities to state hospitals if Kansas took money from their budgets to increase public school funding by $600 million.

School districts suing the state have said at least that much money is needed to get significantly more children up to grade level in math and reading. But a recent school finance report, commissioned by legislative leaders, pegged the figure at up to $2 billion.

"Every level of funding is in jeopardy right now with this ruling."

“Every level of funding is in jeopardy right now with this ruling,” Senate President Susan Wagle said Thursday. She pointed to cybersecurity and transportation as examples of pressing needs where officials fear financial neglect.

“They're concerned that they're going to be on the short end of the stick,” she said, “that they won't get funded as a result of us answering the court” on school funding.

An ongoing lawsuit, Gannon v. Kansas, began in 2010. A string of rulings in that case have all come down in favor of the school districts.

            View a timeline of events in Gannon v. Kansas here

To people pushing for more school spending, the idea that Gannon is forcing the state to eat into other parts of its budget sounds like spin.

“All of that is contingent on the idea that there is a limited amount of dollars that is fixed by whatever our current revenue situation is,” said Mark Tallman, a lobbyist for the Kansas Association of School Boards. “We have fewer state resources, in part, because that's been a choice, and then we're saying we have to pit different areas against each other.”

Over the past decade, revenues withered first because of the 2008 global financial crisis and then continued to struggle after Gov. Sam Brownback’ssignature 2012 tax cuts.

Last summer, the legislature hiked taxes by $600 million annually, but income tax brackets remain lower than they were before the former governor’s cuts.

“We ought to evaluate the needs of every part of state government,” Tallman said, “and determine — Kansans determine — what level of services do they want? And then we need to find the revenue.”

"We need to find the revenue."

Attorney General Derek Schmidt, who helped craft at least one attempted constitutional amendment on schools when he was a lawmaker, has voiced support for revisiting the matter. Yet he’s cautioned lawmakers against using an amendment to get out of the Gannon lawsuit.

Wagle said she agrees any amendment should pertain to future lawsuits — not the long-pending Gannon case.

“Many are expressing concern that we’re in an endless vicious cycle of litigation,” she said. “Until we pass a constitutional amendment, we won't be out of that cycle.”

Kansas school finance has been shaped by a series of lawsuits and court rulings since the 1970s.

Some see the litigation as holding the state purse hostage decade after decade. Others argue it has created a fairer system by shifting away from funding schools largely through wildly unequal local tax bases.

Sen. Pat Pettey, of Kansas City Kan., said the way out is complying with the court’s order — not amending the constitution.

“This is just going against that totally,” Pettey said. “It's saying that we want to change our constitution because we don't want to take care of our K12 education.”

The Kansas City, Kansas, school district is one of the plaintiffs suing the state. Its students come primarily from low-income families. They fall well below the state average for finishing high school and in math and reading proficiency.

In 1966, by popular vote, Kansans inserted a provision in their constitution requiring the state toprovide “suitable” funding for schools. It also says education should improve over time.

Since then, lawmakers have repeatedly sought to change the wording or alter the course of litigation through other amendments, such as tightening the reins on Kansas Supreme Court justices and the court’s powers.

Several such proposals emerged and died in 2005, as the political fight over another school finance lawsuit inched closer and closer to constitutional crisis.

Tallman said school leaders are wary of the renewed push to change the state constitution. They generally suspect, he said, that “there would be more to lose than to gain.”

Amending the constitution is far from easy. It requires two-thirds majorities in each legislative chamber, followed by a majority of voters casting ballots in a referendum.

Donley says the Kansas Coalition for Fair Funding hasn’t settled on what type of amendment to pursue, and isn’t yet disclosing its membership.

“When the formal announcement is made,” he said, “it will include business groups, it will include agricultural groups, it will include contractor groups, it will include potentially some mental health coalition type groups.”

Donley wouldn't say who will fund the effort, just that it's seeking members and hasn't yet received contributions.

Donley wouldn’t say who will fund the effort, just that it’s seeking members and hasn’t yet received contributions.

He conceded that any push for an amendment will fail unless it garners broad support from interest groups and lawmakers across the political spectrum.

But, he says, in the face of the recent school finance report suggesting as much as $2 billion may be needed for schools, Kansans need to think about what they want.

“The conversation,” he said, “is ripe to be had.”

Celia Llopis-Jepsen is a reporter for the Kansas News Service, a collaboration of KCUR, Kansas Public Radio, KMUW and High Plains Public Radio covering health, education and politics. You can reach her on Twitter @Celia_LJ. Kansas News Service stories and photos may be republished at no cost with proper attribution and a link back to the original post.

I'm the creator of the environmental podcast Up From Dust. I write about how the world is transforming around us, from topsoil loss and invasive species to climate change. My goal is to explain why these stories matter to Kansas, and to report on the farmers, ranchers, scientists and other engaged people working to make Kansas more resilient. Email me at celia@kcur.org.
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