Kansas Gov. Laura Kelly gets pushback on education funding increase

Posted at 11:53 AM, Mar 06, 2019
and last updated 2019-03-06 12:55:14-05

TOPEKA, Kan. (AP) — Kansas' new Democratic governor is meeting unexpected resistance to her plan for boosting public education funding from local school districts that believe her proposal wouldn't supply enough new money.

Gov. Laura Kelly touts her proposed increase of roughly $90 million a year as a simple way to comply with a Kansas Supreme Court mandate for an increase in education funding. She initially won over Schools for Fair Funding, a coalition of 48 school districts backing an ongoing lawsuit against the state, including the four districts that sued in 2010.

But the group withdrew its support ahead of a Senate committee hearing Wednesday. One of its attorneys said a further review of Kelly's proposal showed it would fall tens of millions of dollars short each year of satisfying the Supreme Court.

The change of heart is complicating Kelly's efforts to push a funding increase through the Republican-controlled Legislature and could prolong the lawsuit just when an end seemed in sight. It also threatens to divide supporters of more funding in the face of many Republicans' misgivings about higher spending and their frustrations with what they see as an activist court.

"This kind of moves us away from, 'Well, there's one clear, simple answer that everyone agrees on,'" said Mark Tallman, a longtime Kansas Association of School Boards lobbyist.

The Supreme Court has issued six rulings in the past five years mandating increases in education funding, citing a duty under the state constitution for lawmakers to provide a suitable education for every child.

A 2018 law phased in a $548 million increase in the state's $4 billion in annual funding by the 2022-23 school year. The court said it was inadequate because it did not account for inflation, and the state must tell the court by April 15 how it addressed the problem.

John Robb, an attorney for Schools for Fair Funding and the districts suing the state, said lawmakers face "an arithmetic problem."

He contends the arithmetic requires phasing in another $364 million increase in education funding by the 2022-23 school year. The state's spending would then be more than $900 million higher than it was from 2017-18.

That's not how Kelly sees the math.

She argues the state can meet the court's mandate by increasing its annual spending by roughly $90 million a year — or $364 million spread over four years. Under her plan, the state's spending for 2022-23 would be about $640 million higher than it was in 2017-18.

That's roughly $270 million short of Schools for Fair Funding's mark.

But the governor has said she is relying on recommendations from the independently elected and GOP-led State Board of Education last year.

"The goal of this bill is to address inflation, end the litigation and meet the needs of our students and schools," said Kelly spokeswoman Ashley All.
Schools for Fair Funding endorsed Kelly's plan during a Feb. 6 hearing . Lobbyist Bill Brady sent an email the next day to the Senate committee's members saying, "I do not know how to make our position any more clear."

Then, Brady sent a follow-up email Feb. 26, saying that Schools for Fair Funding had "examined the numbers" and concluded Kelly's plan was not sufficient.

The committee's chairwoman, Sen. Molly Baumgardner, a conservative Republican from eastern Kansas, called it "a flip-flop."

"For them to take such an about-face — there is no explanation for it," she said.

Robb said Schools for Fair Funding initially believed Kelly's plan was in line with its stance. He said the group later saw that the State Department of Education simply made mistakes in calculating how to adjust the state's formula for distributing dollars to local school districts and passed those mistakes on to Kelly.

Longtime Deputy Education Commissioner Dale Dennis, in charge of the calculations, rejected Robb's explanation: "There's no error involved."

The disagreement is an unwelcome development for supporters of higher education funding as they deal with a Legislature that grew more conservative after last year's elections. GOP conservatives have long wanted to check the Supreme Court and argue that schools are not accountable enough.

And some Republicans doubt the state could sustain even Kelly's smaller plan without raising taxes within a few years. She pledged during last year's campaign not to pursue tax hikes, with GOP lawmakers already adamantly opposed.

"It will never happen," said Senate Majority Leader Jim Denning, a conservative Kansas City-area Republican.

Kelly and her allies face having a plan that can win lawmakers' approval being challenged before the Supreme Court as insufficient — repeating a pattern under her GOP predecessors that she promised to break.

Senate Minority Leader Anthony Hensley, a Topeka Democrat, is siding with Schools for Fair Funding, arguing that lawmakers should approve its proposed increases for the 2019-20 and 2020-21 school years.

"It's important now that we try to get everybody on the same page," he said.