The Kansas Legislature Finds A Moment Of Clarity In School Funding Turmoil

Jul 1, 2016

A moment of clarity seemed to come to the Kansas Statehouse when all parties interested in fixing equity got into the same room.
Credit KCUR 89.3

Do you remember not long ago when Kansas was on the edge of facing a public education shutdown? Many feared schools would be closed July 1. Some even believed they may not be open for the start of the school year in August.

The unconstitutional inequity between rich and poorer districts appeared to be a problem the Legislature couldn't solve.

But last Friday around lunch time something happened. A plan aggressively pushed by conservatives to claw back a half-percent from each Kansas district to help raise $38 million to solve the equity portion of the Gannon lawsuit was dying. Leadership didn't have the votes.

Suddenly, there was a moment of clarity, and all the stakeholders found themselves in a room.

“I’m not sure whether that clarity would have occurred without an independent judiciary interpreting the Kansas Constitution," says  Alan Rupe, the lead attorney for the plaintiff school districts who has been suing the state over school finance since 1989.

Attorney Alan Rupe says he was consulted on a school funding fix last week for the first time in the 30 years he's been suing Kansas over school finance
Credit AP Pool Photo

For the first time in 30 years, Rupe says, he was involved in crafting a solution. “Somebody said to me the other day, why haven’t you been involved in the fixing of these issues before? And my answer was, 'Because nobody asked.'”

Gathered together were Kansas Commissioner of Education Randy Watson, the lobbyist for the districts suing the state, various school superintendents, conservative Republicans, moderate Republicans, the Chairman of the Senate Ways and Means Committee Ty Masterson, and even Democrats.

The hard deadline by the Supreme Court “pretty much caused everybody to come to the table in order to discuss a resolution,” according the Rupe.

Everyone found themselves in the office of House Appropriations Committee Chairman Ron Ryckman from Olathe, whose plan had died just a few hours before. “We were unified in the fact that we wanted to make sure our schools would remain open and that certainty could be brought back to the state.”

With everyone involved, a fix came together quickly. Late Friday, a deal that includes using money from the sale of the Kansas Bioscience Authority. By Monday, the two sides file a joint stipulation with the high court and on Tuesday the court approved the fix. “I think that’s what our citizens expect us to do,” Ryckman says.

For a few days following the deal,  different factions claimed they made the whole thing happen.

But Ryckman says it looks like a sort of school funding détente has taken hold. “The relationships have been improved. I think our understanding of state finances as well as school financing have also been improved.”

Rep. Ron Ryckman (right) on the floor with Sen. Ty Masterson.
Credit KHI News Service

Rupe agrees, at least for now. The Kansas Supreme Court still has to hear oral arguments on the adequacy part of the case, which potentially involves a lot more money.   

“Everybody’s talking now and had a good result with equity. Everybody is giving happy dances and high fives to the conciliatory effort. But right around the corner is not a $38 million issue, it’s more like a $550 million plus issue that is looming.”

Also looming in the next legislative session is the attempt to write a new school funding formula. It's unclear whether that moment of clarity when everyone worked to fix equity will hold through those much more complicated and expensive issues.

Sam Zeff  covers education for KCUR. He's also co-host of KCUR's political podcast Statehouse Blend. Follow him on Twitter @SamZeff.