On Day 100, A School Funding Bill Gets A ‘Yes’ Vote On The Kansas House Floor

May 24, 2017

The Kansas House debated a school funding plan for five hours Wednesday before passing a bill that many worry won't pass state Supreme Court muster.
Credit Sam Zeff / KCUR 89.3

The Kansas House debated a new school finance plan for five hours Wednesday, taking up two dozen amendments and finally voting 81-40 to advance a bill not much different from the one that had come out of committee. The measure is slated to get a final vote Thursday in the House. Then it will be the Senate’s turn.  

The House bill calls for $279 million in new money over two years. After that, allocations to districts would be bumped up by the inflation rate.  

In March, the state Supreme Court ruled current funding for schools inadequate. Would this new formula be enough to satisfy the justices? Nobody knows. But lawmakers seem to be comfortable coming back for a special session to appropriate more if need be.

“I trust the next phase in the process. Both sides get to present their case to the court and the Supreme Court will judge our work,” says Rep. Melissa Rooker, a moderate Republican from Fairway.

Rooker has emerged as a leader in the school funding debate, helping to manage the bill on the House floor. She and many moderates who voted in favor of the finance plan Wednesday have their doubts whether the high court will bless it. But they feel pressure to move the process forward.

“What we have got in that bill right now hopefully will be sufficient, and if it’s not I guess we’ll be hearing from the courts later,” says Republican Rep. Brenda Dietrich from Topeka, a former school superintendent.

Rep. Jim Ward, the Democratic leader from Wichita, has no doubt a special session is in store. “If this bill becomes law and (is) what’s sent to the court, I would plan on being back in Topeka in July. Unfortunately at that time our schools will be closed.”

The court has said if a constitutionally adequate funding formula isn’t in place by June 30, it will shut down public schools.

An amendment pushed by House Democrats that would have instead added $600 million into K-12 education over three years was beaten back by conservatives and some more moderate Republicans.

Before the debate, Democrats felt good about their chances of boosting the amount of money in the bill. But when Majority Leader Don Hineman, a moderate from Dighton, stood up to oppose the amendment, most believed he would take a lot of other moderates with him. That’s exactly what happened.

All sides like the formula itself. It looks a lot like the old formula that was scrapped for block grants. Districts will get a per-pupil base amount and additional money for at-risk students and English language learners, among other factors.

Ward says he likes the formula but there’s just not enough money put into it.

“You can have the nicest car in the driveway, but if you don’t buy the gas it doesn’t go anywhere. And that’s the problem with this formula, it’s woefully inadequately funded,” he says.

Also Wednesday the Senate Select Committee on school funding passed out its school finance plan.

It has less new money than the House measure, $240 million over two years.

The Legislature may take a long Memorial Day weekend, leaving Friday and not returning until Tuesday. Senators were told a school finance bill won’t make it to the floor until next week.

And getting a bill to final action in the House wasn’t easy with so many amendments offered by members, including a couple that seemed to come out of nowhere.

Rep. Trevor Jacobs, a Fort Scott Republican, carried an amendment that would have required students to use the bathroom according to their biological sex. The Rules Committee said it wasn’t germane to the bill and the amendment failed.

An amendment from Republican Rep. John Whitmer from Wichita would have allowed optional gun safety training in schools. That was also ruled not germane and failed.

Democrat Rep.  Jerry Stogsdill, who just returned to Topeka after recovering from a heart attack a week ago, tried to push through an amendment that would have restored due process for teachers. It also was ruled not germane.

Sam Zeff covers education for KCUR and the Kansas News Service and is  host of the political podcast Statehouse Blend Kansas. Follow him on Twitter @SamZeff. Kansas News Service stories and photos may be republished at no cost with proper attribution and a link back to KCUR.org.