Kansas lawmakers reviewing school funding ruling

TOPEKA, Kan. (AP) — A key Kansas legislator said Monday he was ordering the House budget committee to begin work immediately on resolving school funding issues after last week’s state Supreme Court ruling.

Attorney General Derek Schmidt told House Republicans that Friday’s ruling was a shift in focus from previous court opinions in that it gave legislators latitude in how they change two funds for poor school districts.

“You now know what to shoot for,” said Schmidt, a Republican and former Senate majority leader.

The court ruled Friday that the state must boost aid to poor school districts, giving legislators until July 1 to address the problems. It also ordered a lower court to determine how much more the state must spend on schools overall.

House Speaker Ray Merrick said the chamber’s budget-writing Appropriations Committee, dominated by a majority of Republicans, will handle school funding legislation, setting aside work on all other spending issues in order to find the school finance solution quickly.

Boosting aid to poor districts could come out to $129 million a year, the state Department of Education said Friday.

“Bear with us,” the Stilwell Republican said Monday. He also discouraged any legislative efforts to rewrite the funding formula before legislators adjourn in May.

“If we do that we will end up making a lot of mistakes,” Merrick said, adding that Republicans should “set aside your love for your school districts.”

Senate President Susan Wagle, a Wichita Republican, said her chamber also would work on a bill to address the ruling, though she didn’t rule out making other small changes to the funding formula as time permits.

Schmidt, who had a similar meeting with Senate Republicans, said that the court offered a “respectful” ruling in that it recognized the role of the Legislature to set education policy, as well as the total amount of money that is spent on public schools.

However, Schmidt said, the debate has changed from determining if actual costs of education are being covered by all funding sources to whether outcomes already in Kansas law are being met.

The criteria used in Kansas and other states comes from a 1989 Kentucky school finance case, which established seven requirements for measuring schools and students. They include knowledge of government, communication skills, appreciation for arts, history and culture and the preparation for college or career upon graduation.

Rep. Jim Ward, a Wichita Democrat, disagreed with Republicans who believe correcting two aid categories for poor districts would be enough to settle any question if the overall amount spent was adequate. Ward predicted the state would have to spend hundreds of millions more on schools — but not any time soon.

“The real losers are the students of Kansas who will have to wait two years to see more money for education,” he said.

Not all House Republicans were pleased with the ruling and its potential impact. Rep. Scott Schwab of Olathe told Schmidt and the caucus that the court’s language about school districts being able to sue the state over spending levels was troubling and could lead to more litigation from others.

“This gets to be a very dark hole that the court throws us into,” Schwab said.

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