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Republican Plan Would Boost Kansas School Spending by $500 Million

Republican Rep. Steven Johnson proposed the funding boost for schools. (Photo by Stephen Koranda)

Republicans in the Kansas House have unveiled a school funding proposal to send an added half billion dollars local districts in the next five years. A committee advanced the bill Wednesday night to the full House for consideration.

The plan was released a little over a week before lawmakers hope to have a bill approved.

Legislators are working to respond to a state Supreme Court ruling that says schools are underfunded. The court in the past has threatened to close schools if the funding system continues to fail constitutional tests.

Republican Rep. Steven Johnson’s proposal would boost school spending about $100 million per year for five years. He contends that could satisfy the court and is the most the state could afford without a tax increase.

“Our goal is to keep schools open and give them the resources they need,” he said.

Johnson said the funding plan may prove tough for lawmakers to swallow and it will face criticism that it’s either too much money or too little.

“The discussion isn’t over yet,” he said, “but hopefully we have it started.”

Republican Rep. Steve Huebert said he isn’t sure the state can afford the spending increase. He said any economic slowdown over the five years could hurt state tax collections and push the budget into a deficit.

“We’re pushing the envelope right now without tax increases,” Huebert said.

Democratic Rep. Ed Trimmer noted it’s less money than the up to $2 billion recommended earlier this month in a legislature-commissioned consultant’s report — if lawmakers want to deliver the improved student performance many have pushed to achieve.

“We have to talk about the elephant in the room,” Trimmer said. “That’s a long way from what the study indicated that we need to put into education.”

Republican Rep. Melissa Rooker has pushed for increases in school spending, and she said Johnson’s plan appears to comply with some past rulings on school funding, creating a solid “legal underpinning.”

“This represents a good-faith effort to try and get our state education system back on track,” Rooker said.

The consultant’s study based recommendations on several factors, including a high school graduation rate of 95 percent. Some lawmakers have said no state has achieved that and they could respond to the court ruling without hitting the targets in the funding study.

Both Republicans and Democrats want to avoid a tax hike. They reversed many of the state’s 2012 tax cuts during a budget fight last year.

Before Johnson floated his plan, Republican House Speaker Ron Ryckman said he wants a bill that can be funded without a tax increase or significant cuts to other state services.

“We are looking at it to balance out with the rest of the state budget,” he said. “We’re definitely concerned about other core functions of government, especially those that aren’t constitutionally protected.”

The struggle to find a school spending compromise comes after years-long litigation over the issue.

In response to a previous court order, lawmakers voted last year for a multi-year spending hike. It boosted spending by about $200 million in the current fiscal year. Another $100 million is slated to be added in the next fiscal year. In the future, funding increases would be tied to the federal Consumer Price Index.

Lawmakers are scheduled to leave for their spring break at the end of next week. Leaders want to have a plan approved before they hit the road.

Stephen Koranda is Statehouse reporter for Kansas Public Radio, a partner in the Kansas News Service. Follow him on Twitter @kprkoranda. Kansas News Service stories and photos may be republished at no cost with proper attribution and a link back to the original post.

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