Kansas school funding solution proves elusive

Joyce Eisenmenger Morrison, the communication director for Schools Fair Funding, talks about the Kansas Supreme Court ruling regarding school finance on Friday, March, 7, 2014, in Topeka, Kan. The Supreme Court ruled Friday that the state's current public school funding levels are unconstitutional, and the court said Kansas' poor school districts were harmed when the state made the decision to cut certain payments when tax revenues declined during the Great Recession. (AP Photo/The Topeka Capital Journal, Chris Neal)
Joyce Eisenmenger Morrison, the communication director for Schools Fair Funding, talks about the Kansas Supreme Court ruling regarding school finance on Friday, March, 7, 2014, in Topeka, Kan. The Supreme Court ruled Friday that the state's current public school funding levels are unconstitutional, and the court said Kansas' poor school districts were harmed when the state made the decision to cut certain payments when tax revenues declined during the Great Recession. (AP Photo/The Topeka Capital Journal, Chris Neal)

TOPEKA, Kan. (AP) — It would seem a simple task. Write a check for $129 million and satisfy a Kansas Supreme Court ruling regarding the constitutionality of school funding.

But the process is proving difficult as legislators dive into the 20-year-old school finance formula, scanning about to look at various aspects of how $3 billion in state aid is distributed and whether the money is producing the desired results.

Gov. Sam Brownback hasn’t put forth a specific funding plan, but has issued a set of principles he wants legislators to follow in drafting their solution. He also wants them to get it done by Friday, the day legislators leave for a three-week recess.

“That’s what I’m pushing to get done,” he said. “Let’s see what component parts need to happen to get that past the Legislature. I think there are some parts in here that people are saying will be helpful to get the overall bill passed. I’m open to those items.”

Brownback added he was concerned how any formula changes would be viewed by the court and generate more legal uncertainty.

House Minority Leader Paul Davis, who is seeking the Democratic nomination for governor, has proposed just writing a check, using the state’s revenue surpluses to cover the cost. The Lawrence attorney said the governor can and should take more of a leadership role and stop Republicans from tinkering with the formula.

“Now is not the time to be messing around with this. This is the time for the governor to show some leadership and tell them to knock off the games,” Davis said. “This is not difficult.”

The March 7 ruling found flaws with two funds that equalize aid to poorer school districts and gave legislators until July to make the changes. But as Attorney General Derek Schmidt has opined, the state has options and that has sent legislators diving into the weeds of the decades-old formula for loose change.

The situation is different from 2005 when the Kansas Supreme Court last ruled on school funding matters. Then, like the March ruling, the justices found levels of funding unconstitutional and ordered legislators to boost spending. The ruling also had specific areas that had to be addressed, such as aid for students who are at-risk of academic failure.

Senators are looking at two plans, one from GOP leaders and one from Senate Ways and Means Committee Chairman Ty Masterson. The Andover Republican is considering tweaking how the state calculates funding for at-risk students, citing audits that show the state may be overpaying for the additional services by as much as 14 percent.

“What I’m really trying to get at is … something that really defines who that at-risk kid is,” Masterson said. “The goal is to get him the services through the district to the kid.”

The House Appropriations Committee is considering a GOP leadership bill that proposes changes to the way the state calculates transportation aid for local districts. A legislative audit in 2006 determined that a flaw in the math, dating to a 1973 formula still in use, overpaid districts by as much as $16 million annually for the cost of transporting students.

The change would affect every district by reducing their reimbursement, as much as $1.1 million in Wichita and more than $426,000 in the Johnson County district of Blue Valley.

Chairman Marc Rhoades, a Newton Republican, said more hearings would be held Monday for legislators to hear more about the impact. He said there would likely be more changes to the plan.

Legislators are also looking at cutting funding for online schools, which has parents concerned that it will reduce options for their students. The Kansas Chapter of PublicSchoolOptions.org argues that reducing funding would diminish already limited school choice options in the state. The organization plans to testify during legislative hearings on funding proposals this week.

Mechanically, a funding bill could be debated within a few days and legislators will meet the governor’s deadline before leaving town. Politically, that goal might be out of reach.

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