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Kelly hints she'll sign Kansas schools plan by taking credit

Laura Kelly
Posted at 4:28 PM, May 07, 2021
and last updated 2021-05-07 17:28:13-04

TOPEKA, Kan. — Democratic Gov. Laura Kelly indicated Friday that she'll sign bipartisan education legislation by publicly claiming credit for the measure, which would boost funding for public schools while also making more students eligible for private school scholarships.

The governor's statement that she had "delivered on education, and did right by our kids" came hours after Senate President Ty Masterson and House Speaker Ron Ryckman Jr. said she had committed to signing the $5.2 billion education funding and policy measure. The two legislative leaders hoped both chambers would pass the measure Friday or early Saturday and clear the way for the GOP-controlled Legislature to wrap up its business for the year.

Conservatives did get a key "school choice" initiative into the package, but they dropped a more ambitious proposal to use state dollars to create education savings accounts that the parents of struggling public school students could use to pay for private schooling. The measure includes Kelly's proposed 5.3% increase in aid for the state's 286 local public school districts and a raft of other policies, including limits on remote learning that became prevalent during the coronavirus pandemic.

"Everybody feels like they lost a little something and gained a little something," Masterson, an Andover Republican, told reporters Friday.

Masterson and Ryckman, an Olathe Republican, bargained with Kelly on Thursday as three senators and three House members drafted the final version of the education bill.

Senate Minority Leader Dinah Sykes, a Lenexa Democrat and one of the education negotiators, said Thursday night that she would support the measure. It contains education groups' top priority, an increase in education spending they see as fully funding public schools for 2021-22.

"Obviously, we don't want to get full funding with a lot of other unacceptable things, but this plan is a pretty substantial compromise," said Mark Tallman, a lobbyist for the Kansas Association of School Boards.

Another group of House and Senate negotiators reached agreement late Thursday night on the rest of a $21 billion spending blueprint for state government for the budget year beginning July 1. Legislative leaders hoped both chambers would pass it late Friday or early Saturday.

The budget would include an additional $53 million for higher education. Kelly's budget director has said the extra money is necessary under a federal requirement to maintain "historic funding" for Kansas to get its full share of federal coronavirus relief funds.

The budget also would include an additional $17 million to increase pay for state court employees, including judges, and hire 70 new court services officers. But budget negotiators didn't include a pay raise for all state employees, with senators arguing taxpayers would object after thousands of people lost their jobs and businesses closed during the pandemic.

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

The compromise education measure would modify a program that gives a state income tax credit for donations to funds that give private school scholarships to students in the 100 lowest-performing public elementary schools.

The total tax credits would remain capped at $10 million a year, but any elementary or middle school student who receives free or reduced-cost lunches would be eligible for scholarships. The tax-credit cap has never been reached.

The House last month approved a bill containing Kelly's proposed spending but also conservatives' proposal for education savings accounts. Democrats and education groups argued that education savings accounts would siphon tens of millions of dollars from public schools, and the measure failed in the Senate on a 20-20 vote.

"Though they're a wonderful tool that can help at-risk kids, it wasn't something that we could find overall consensus on at this time," said Rep. Kristey Williams, an Augusta Republican and the chair of a House committee on education spending.