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Kansas Governor And Senate Ready To End School Spending Battle, House Not So Much

Celia Llopis-Jepsen
Kansas News Service
House Speaker Ron Ryckman, left, and Senate President Susan Wagle are leading chambers that could be headed for conflict in the school funding debate.

Republicans in the Kansas Senate seem ready to end a long-running lawsuit by complying with a court ruling that said the state sends too little money to local school districts.

The Kansas House? Not just yet. It’s advancinga plan that would continue adding school spending for another year, and only another year.

That sets up a potential fight between the two chambers and threatens Democratic Gov. Laura Kelly’s hopes for a plan to finally settle the court battle and carve out increased funding for public schools for several years to come.

Leaders in the House want to mix conservative policies with a funding plan that only boosts spending for the coming fiscal year. They’d also strip away future funding increases already in state law.

Senators have approved a bill mirroring Kelly’s plan for a multi-year funding hike, which many lawmakers hope could end the lawsuit.

“It is our best attempt to provide a reasonable solution for the Supreme Court,” Republican Sen. Molly Baumgardner said last week when pitching the bill to her fellow senators.

In a way, the Senate vote marks a change of fortune for Kelly. Republican leaders have blasted and blocked many of her major proposals. But Kelly’s school funding plan, based on numbers from the Department of Education, has garnered bipartisan support.

The Senate sent the bill to the House on a 32-8 vote with support from Democrats, moderate Republicans and conservatives such as Senate Majority Leader Jim Denning.

But House Speaker Ron Ryckman said he has concerns the boost in school funding would leave lawmakers unable to fund other services like roads and mental health care.

“We have to balance everything out and not always do what is politically easy to do,” Ryckman said. “We need to protect other core functions of government.”

The House will continue to work first on a proposal introduced last week, Ryckman said.

That bill includes an initial injection of cash for local school districts, but it cancels future funding increases and mixes in some controversial policies. For instance, it would let bullied students transfer to private schools on the state’s dime. Letting students use public money for private schools has already drawn criticism from a teachers’ union and school districts.

The Kansas Supreme Court mostly signed off on a funding boost lawmakers approved last year. But the justices said that previous spending plan needs to be adjusted for inflation. Kelly’s bill offers that added money.

Rep. Tom Sawyer, the Democratic Party leader in the House, wants to simply approve the Senate plan and move on. He said the House Republicans’ bill reopens the entire school funding debate.

“That causes all kinds of problems with the court,” Sawyer said. “Do the Senate bill. Get it behind us. Fund our schools the way we should.”

A committee will continue work this week on the House plan.

If the House approves its bill, the two chambers will have to find a compromise between proposals that have a wide disparity in funding and policy ideas.

Kelly will stay out of the fight for now and won’t pitch her plan to House lawmakers.

“They would prefer just operating on their own,” Kelly told reporters.

The issue is further complicated by a group of dozens of school districts, including the four that sued the state in the latest lawsuit, that now say even the bill approved in the Senate falls hundreds of millions of dollars short.

Baumgardner said lawmakers can’t afford what the school districts want without crippling the state budget.

“A $900 million price tag over four years will be devastating to our state,” she said during the Senate debate.

Republican Sen. Kevin Braun said if the Senate bill doesn’t satisfy the high court, it’s time to change the state constitution so courts can’t weigh in on school spending. He’s not interested in another round of fighting over a funding increase.

“This is not an opening bid,” Braun said. “This is a final offer.”

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.

 Kansas News Service stories and photos may be republished at no cost with proper attribution and a link to ksnewsservice.org.

As the Kansas News Service managing editor, I help our statewide team of reporters find the important issues and breaking news that impact people statewide. We refine our daily stories to illustrate the issues and events that affect the health, well-being and economic stability of the people of Kansas. Email me at skoranda@kcur.org.
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