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With Kansas Senate Bill Done, Negotiations On School Spending Start For Real

Scott Canon
Kansas News Service
Legislators are nearing a House-Senate showdown on school spending.

Arm wrestling over a final deal on Kansas school spending begins in earnest Friday after the Senate settled on a figure that’s much lower than the House’s position.

The bill squeaked through after hours of discussion, winning the last vote necessary only after leaders forced lawmakers who initially abstained to weigh in.

Earlier, with the bill’s fate unclear, Republican leaders in the Senate issued stern direction to members of their party. Some were called into a closed-door meeting with Senate President Susan Wagle.

"In order to keep a Republican majority in the Kansas Senate through the next election, that we need to make sure we don't force ourselves into another tax increase."

“We had some private talks,” Wagle said. “I felt like, that in order to keep a Republican majority in the Kansas Senate through the next election, that we need to make sure we don’t force ourselves into another tax increase.”

Sen. Carolyn McGinn was in the meeting, but wouldn’t provide details.

“I’m not in a very good mood,” she told reporters on her way out of the chamber. “There was a plea to help them move the process forward.”

Republican Sen. Dinah Sykes had prepared an amendment to bring the Senate’s bill in line with the House’s version, but backed down when it appeared destined to lose.

“I think we were close,” she said.

The Senate wants to increase education funding by between $50 and $60 million each year for the next five years. That’s about half as much money as the House wants.

House leaders say their version won’t require a tax hike -- and they have backing from Gov. Jeff Colyer -- but Wagle said revenue projections don’t show that.

Sen. Molly Baumgardner, who carried her chamber’s bill, pleaded on the Senate floor with her colleagues to think about programs in the bill that would help children who struggle with academics and access to college.

“All of us,” she said, “care about our kids.”

But some wanted long-term commitments to increase special education funding or other services. They worried the Kansas Supreme Court will find fault with whatever middle ground the House and Senate now reach.

Senate Democratic leader Anthony Hensley called the Senate’s bill “woefully inadequate.”

“We have to come up with an adequate amount of funding in order to take it across the street and convince those seven people,” he said, referring to the justices presiding over the fate of the seven-year lawsuit that is pushing lawmakers to hike education funding.

Republican Ty Masterson was one of the senators who initially declined to vote. In the end, he signed on despite reservations.

"This is too high."

“This is too high,” he said, and bemoaned a lack of changes to education policy. “I’d love to see accountability, school choice.”

School choice measures that expand the public’s access to private schools have helped sweeten past school finance bills for conservative Republicans.

The Senate bill increases funding for special education and early childhood programs, and gives high school students access to the ACT college entrance exam and to advanced English coursework for college-credit. But only some of the funding carries over year to year, causing consternation from some senators who wanted guarantees.

Money in both the Senate and House bills comes on top of a $300 million increase that lawmakers approved last spring.

Sen. Lynn Rogers, a Wichita Democrat, said his years on the board of Kansas’ largest school district taught him how inflation eats into school budgets year by year. In that context, he said, schools need more.

“It is not a lot of money,” he said, “in terms of what it can do on the ground, in the school districts.”

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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