GOP worries Kansas can’t hit fairness target for school aid

(KSNT Image Library)

TOPEKA, Kan. (AP) — Republican lawmakers assert that they may never be able to meet the Kansas Supreme Court’s demands for fairness in education funding and will see a chaotic budget process every year as they reshuffle dollars among local school districts.

The high court said last month that Kansas has not given poor districts their fair share and schools must shut down in July unless lawmakers fix the problem. In response, the Senate could debate a bill Monday looking at redistributing part of the state’s annual aid to its 286 school districts.

Republicans debating the measure in committee said they found it galling that the court rejected key parts of a law enacted last year that junked the state’s previous per-pupil distribution formula in favor of “block grants” meant to largely freeze spending.

Predictable allocations for school districts give the state a stable target as it struggles to balance its budget. The court’s decision, Republicans say, pushes Kansas in the opposite direction — and potentially into new legal challenges every year.

“You would never be done with that,” said Senate Ways and Means Committee Chairman Ty Masterson, an Andover Republican who wrote the plan.

The state spends more than $4 billion a year on public schools. The Senate’s bill would redistribute about $38 million of that money during the 2016-17 school year, cutting funding for 186 districts to increase it for 100 others. In the House, Republicans were so critical of a milder version that a committee chairman dropped it.

The Dodge City, Hutchinson, Wichita and Kansas City, Kansas, districts have pursued the fair-funding lawsuit since 2010. Their attorneys believe legislators need to provide another $163 million to schools to meet the court’s demands — and have asked the justices to say so immediately.

Democratic legislators and school superintendents have argued that Kansas would fulfill its constitutional duty to finance a suitable education for every child if lawmakers would cough up more money.

“I also don’t think a ‘one size fits all, forever’ solution will work,” said John Robb, a Newton attorney representing the four districts. “It doesn’t in all aspects of life.”

Republican Gov. Sam Brownback and his allies saw the state’s previous per-pupil formula as deeply flawed, but many educators liked how it automatically adjusted a district’s aid if it gained students or special needs increased.

Local school districts impose their own property taxes to supplement their state funds, and under the previous formula, the state gave extra money to poor districts so that they could keep up with their wealthier cousins. The school funding law enacted last year folded those extra dollars into the districts’ grants, which were largely frozen between 2015-16 and 2016-17.

The Supreme Court ruled that the changes were unfair to poor districts and that one among many options would be fluctuating the aid, based on the average value of property in each district per student.

“Every year, what you’re equalizing might change,” said Mark Tallman, a lobbyist for the Kansas Association of School Boards.

Masterson said his plan is an attempt to keep schools open by adopting the court’s specific suggestion while staying within the state’s existing resources. But he and other Republicans don’t much like such proposals — or the prospects of tinkering with aid every year under the watchful eyes of the court.

“They have us chasing our tail,” said Rep. Marc Rhoades, a Newton Republican.

Copyright 2016 The Associated Press. All rights reserved. This material may not be published, broadcast, rewritten or redistributed.


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