TOPEKA, Kan. (AP) — Republican Gov. Sam Brownback’s $4.1 billion plan to overhaul public school funding passed through the Senate on Monday, but a court challenge may block the measure before it gets off the ground.
A panel of three district judges had issued the order Friday shortly after the proposal was passed by the Kansas House, saying it may block changes to the current formula due to a pending case on whether the state is funding schools at constitutionally adequate levels. An earlier nonbinding ruling by the court said Kansas must spend at least $548 million more on schools.
The school funding overhaul is central to Brownback’s policy plans because aid to public schools is the biggest item in the state budget and settling it lays the groundwork for resolving other tax and spending questions.
After being narrowly passed by the House, the Senate approved the measure 25-14. Brownback is expected to sign it later in the week.
Senate Minority Leader Anthony Hensley, a Topeka Democrat, said passing the bill represented an intentional refusal to comply with the court’s order and claimed that portions of the bill were unconstitutional.
The plan would scrap the current school funding formula, instead giving districts “block grants” based on their current aid for the next two school years, until lawmakers draft a new formula. The governor and other Republicans say the current formula is too complex and directs too much away from classroom learning.
Many educators dislike the block grant plan because the state’s 286 school districts would lose $51 million in state aid they expected to receive for the current school year. However, the plan has been lauded by the Kansas Chamber of Commerce, the state’s largest business group, and organizations advocating for conservative economic policies.
Republican Sen. Ty Masterson of Andover, who was one of the chief designers of the bill, said he was increasingly frustrated, claiming that teacher unions and advocacy groups had been spreading misinformation about the bill.
“A young woman called my office, told me her daughter was in tears, because she didn’t think she’d have a school next year. It just makes me angry, because the response I’d love to make is, ‘Then stop lying to her,'” Masterson said.
Brownback and the GOP-dominated Legislature must also close budget shortfalls 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.
Senate President Susan Wagle, a Republican from Wichita, said she supported and voted for the current formula as a House representative when it was adopted in 1992, but over the years the system became unpredictable and lost touch with priorities.
“The formula is broken in that we are no longer talking about student outcomes and student achievement, we’re fighting for money,” Wagle said.
Six of the Senate’s 22 Republicans voted against the plan. Republican Sen. Jeff Longbine of Emporia said he voted against it because communities that experience large fluctuations in student enrollment would be hurt by it because the funding levels would be fixed.
The bill would set aside $4 million in 2015, $12.2 million in 2016 and $17.5 million in 2017 as an “extraordinary need fund” for schools that see conditions out of their control like enrollment outpacing their budgets. Longbine said this amount would not be enough and uncertainty remains on how effective the process for applying to receive the funds will be.
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