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GOP leaders, governor negotiating over Kansas school funding

Kansas capitol
Posted at 1:10 PM, May 06, 2021
and last updated 2021-05-06 14:10:10-04

TOPEKA, Kan. — Top Republican legislators and Democratic Gov. Laura Kelly negotiated Thursday over funding for Kansas' public schools and proposals aimed at helping some parents send their children to private schools.

Conservative Republicans have tried to tie an increase in aid to the state's 286 local public school districts to "school choice" initiatives but have been unable to pass a bill with that combination. Democrats and education groups would prefer to provide the money with no new strings.

Kelly's office and GOP leaders hadn't reached a deal as of Thursday afternoon. However, legislative leaders where hopeful enough to appoint three senators and three House members to draft the final version of an education funding and policy bill with whatever the governor and top Republicans eventually work out.

The Republican-controlled Legislature cannot wrap up its business for the year without finishing work on a spending blueprint for state government approaching $21 billion for the budget year that begins July 1. Funding for public schools would account for $5.2 billion in spending.

"It's just a back and forth," said House Speaker Ron Ryckman Jr., an Olathe Republican, who is involved in the talks with Kelly.

Ryckman and other GOP legislative leaders hoped lawmakers could finish the year's business late Friday or on Saturday, but lawmakers on Thursday still had to hash out numerous budget and policy issues.

Those issues included additional funding for the state's court system, pay raises for state government employees and additional funding for higher education.

Kelly proposed an increase in education funding of $263 million, or 5.3%, in line with a law enacted in 2019 to resolve a 2010 lawsuit against the state brought by four school districts. That lawsuit remains before the Kansas Supreme Court, and Democrats believe failing to provide as money as Kelly has recommended will prompt the justices to intervene.

"I want to keep us out of court," said Senate Minority Leader Dinah Sykes, a Lenexa Republican.

The House last month approved a bill containing Kelly's spending, but it also passed a proposal from conservative Republicans that would send education funds to education savings accounts for academically troubled students that could be used to pay for private schooling. The bill also would have expanded a program that gives a state income tax credit for donations to scholarship funds that help at-risk students attend private schools.

Democrats and education groups argue that education savings accounts potentially could siphon tens of millions of dollars from public schools.

"The education savings account piece is extremely problematic and needs to go," said Mark Desetti, a lobbyist for the state's largest teachers union.

House Republicans' combination of proposals failed in the Senate on a 20-20 vote last month, lessening some conservatives' expectations for what can pass. Sen. Beverly Gossage, a Eudora Republican, said giving parents a choice of where to send their children to school is important because not all students flourish in public schools.

But, she added, "We do have to have something that will pass."

Yet some Republicans haven't given up on getting some version of their initiatives tied to public school funding.

"I think there will be good policy in it," said Rep. Kristey Williams, an Augusta Republican and chair of a House committee on education funding.

The debate is complicated by questions about higher education funding.

Kelly's budget director, Adam Proffitt, told lawmakers in a memo Sunday that the U.S. Department of Education is requiring states to maintain "historic funding" for higher education to receive their full share of coronavirus relief funds.

Proffitt recommended an additional $53 million for the next budget and $106 million more for the budget year beginning July 1, 2022. Some Republicans are skeptical, and lawmakers were negotiating among themselves Thursday.