Kansas lawmakers advance rival education funding proposals

TOPEKA, Kan. (AP) — Republican lawmakers in Kansas advanced rival plans Tuesday that would increase spending on public schools in hopes of satisfying a state Supreme Court mandate with a deadline looming, while also avoiding a tax increase.

The House approved a bill that would phase in an education funding increase of roughly $520 million over five years. Its 71-53 vote sent the measure to the Senate.

Meanwhile, a Senate committee on school funding approved its own bill that would phase in a $274 million increase over five years, dedicating some of the new money to early childhood education programs to prevent kids from falling behind later. A Senate debate is next.

"We see an opportunity here to move the ball forward. We need to solve the problem," Republican Gov. Jeff Colyer said. "We have to respond to the Supreme Court."

Top Democratic legislators believe that neither plan would satisfy the Supreme Court. It ruled in October that the state's current spending on public schools of more than $4 billion a year still isn't sufficient under the Kansas Constitution, even with increases approved last year. The court has said the constitution requires legislators to finance a suitable education for every child.

Many Republicans, particularly conservatives, also want lawmakers to consider a proposed amendment to the state constitution to strip the courts of their ability to rule on whether the state is spending enough money on its schools. A House committee is reviewing such a proposed amendment.

The Supreme Court ordered the state to report to it in writing by April 30 on how the Republican-controlled Legislature has fixed the problems it identified in school funding. Colyer said he wants lawmakers to pass a bill before taking their annual spring break, which is scheduled to start Saturday.

Colyer also said he does not want to increase taxes, though that sentiment is widely shared, even among Democrats who think both plans do not provide enough new money to schools. Lawmakers raised income taxes last year by roughly $600 million a year to balance the budget and provide extra dollars to schools.

Many legislators are hoping the state can cover new spending on public schools with growth in state revenues. Tax collections have exceeded expectations each of the past 10 months, resulting in a $315 million surplus during the current budget year.

"We want to try to do this within existing resources," said Senate Minority Leader Anthony Hensley, a Topeka Democrat.

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