Kansas House panel approves GOP leaders’ school funding plan

Many educators testifying in front of House Committee March 9, 2014 on bill that would enact block grant funding for schools. (KSNT Photo/Kaitlin Berry)

TOPEKA, Kan. (AP) — A Republican plan for overhauling education funding in Kansas cleared a GOP-dominated House committee Tuesday despite bipartisan criticism that lawmakers are moving too quickly in imposing dramatic changes that could hurt public schools.

GOP leaders who drafted the plan argue that they’re helping schools by giving them predictable funding through the 2016-17 school year in difficult budget times. The plan also would help the state control costs by junking its per-student aid formula, which in some years has forced unanticipated but automatic increases in aid.

The House Appropriations Committee approved a bill containing GOP leaders’ plan on a voice vote, sending it to the full House for a debate that could occur later this week. The Senate Ways and Means Committee had a hearing Tuesday, also intending to move quickly.

Many educators dislike the plan because the state’s 286 school districts would lose $51 million of the $4.1 billion in state aid they expected to receive for the current school year. Critics of the plan contend many districts will trim programs.

Top Republicans note that schools still would receive significantly more than they did during the 2013-14 school year and that state aid would rise after that, mostly because of increased contributions to teacher pensions. The plan incorporates Republican Gov. Sam Brownback’s proposal to give districts “block grants” based on their current aid for the next two school years, until lawmakers draft a new formula.

The House committee’s vote came five days after Republican legislative leaders unveiled the plan. Republican Rep. Don Hill, Emporia, said GOP leaders are “ramming through” the plan, and Democratic Rep. Kay Wolfe Moore, of Kansas City, said top Republicans wanted “less eyes on it and less comment,” calling the tactic “trickery, trickery, trickery.”

“It looks to me like a very fast train going out of this building on a very important issue,” said Rep. Jerry Henry, of Atchison, the committee’s ranking Democrat.

House committee Chairman Ron Ryckman Jr., an Olathe Republican, defended the quick action, saying the lack of certainty about education funding is holding up work on other budget and tax issues. Aid to public schools is the biggest item in the state budget.

Brownback and the GOP-dominated Legislature must close a budget shortfall projected at nearly $600 million for the fiscal year beginning July 1. The state’s fiscal problems arose after lawmakers aggressively cut personal income taxes in 2012 and 2013 at Brownback’s urging to stimulate the economy.

Brownback and many GOP lawmakers argue that the state’s funding formula — created in 1992 and modified repeatedly since — is too complex and doesn’t send enough dollars into classrooms. They’re also frustrated that the state can be on the hook for unanticipated increases in aid, such as when the price tag for the current school year jumped nearly $64 million after lawmakers set the budget last year.

“There’s a time when you have to clean the slate and begin over again,” said Rep. Marvin Kleeb, an Overland Park Republican.

 

Copyright 2015 The Associated Press. All rights reserved. This material may not be published, broadcast, rewritten or redistributed.

 

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