As we enter the final week of the 2018 Kansas Legislative Session, anyone hoping for a clear and straightforward solution to the school funding crisis in Kansas will be sorely disappointed. The only thing certain at this point is that absolutely nothing is certain.
Early in the morning of April 7, 2018, the Legislature passed a school finance bill, ostensibly responding to the Supreme Court mandate to provide adequate funding for public schools in Kansas. This bill, which originated in the House, would provide just over $500 million to schools over a five-year period, substantially higher than a bill which the Senate had passed. The House version passed without a single vote to spare in either the House or Senate, and was quickly signed into law by Governor Jeff Colyer.
Unfortunately, there are a couple of challenges with the bill that was passed. First, the bill likely does not provide adequate funding. In fact, there were a number of legislators who are strong education supporters (including members of the Wyandotte County delegation and democrats and moderate republicans from across the state) who voted against the bill, because they believed it provided too little funding to meet the constitution’s adequacy requirement. These legislators tried several times to add additional money to the bill, without success.
Also, as frequently happens when things are done late at night, a mistake was made, this time, one that would cost school districts $80 million next year. So, a clear task for the Legislature during the nine-day Wrap-Up session, which began last Thursday, was to “fix” the bill, although different legislators have different views of what “fix” means.
Again, some education supporters want to put more money into the bill, in an attempt to meet the adequacy requirement in the Kansas Constitution. Others have pointed to Senate leadership, including Senator Susan Wagle from Sedgewick County and Senator Jim Denning of Johnson County (who have both spoken out strongly against additional money for public schools), and argued that the only bill that could pass would be a “clean” bill, one that fixed the mistake that was made, but otherwise did not change the original bill. On Saturday, April 28, the House passed such a “clean” bill, and sent it to the Senate for an up-or-down vote.
So, one task before the Senate this week is to vote on the bill passed by the House, House Substitute for Senate Bill 61. If it passes, it will go to the Governor, who has promised to sign it. Then, the details of the bill would go before the Kansas Supreme Court, which will be holding a hearing on May 22, 2018 to determine if the bill meets the adequacy requirement of the Kansas Constitution. If it does not, Legislators would have to come back in a special session in June to fix it.
Many education advocates believe the bill remains hundreds of millions of dollars short of adequacy, and needs to be implemented more quickly (in three years, rather than the five years currently in the bill.) They point out that, with inflation adding almost $100 million to the cost of education every year, most of money in the current bill would merely go to keeping up with inflation.
Other things to keep an eye on this week include the budget bill, which needs to pass the Senate, and any attempt by either body to cut taxes. The latest revenue estimates indicate that the state is about $500 million ahead of projections, which mean that for the first time in many years, the state actually has the revenue to fund public schools adequately. If taxes are cut, that revenue would no longer be available. (Remember, it was the disastrous tax cuts that former Governor Brownback pushed through in 2012 that threw the state budget into chaos, and it was the Legislature’s action last Spring to rescind those tax cuts which has stabilized the state budget.)
As always, you are encouraged to communicate with your local legislators to express your feelings about issues before the Legislature. The Kansas Association of School Boards has contact information for all members of the Legislature, which you can find here: https://kasb.org/advocacy/legislative-contacts/. Thank you for staying engaged with legislative issues, and for all you do for our children.
David A. Smith
Kansas City, Kansas Public Schools