TOPEKA, Kan. — Kansas Gov. Sam Brownback signed a bill Thursday that would increase spending on the state’s public schools while chastising lawmakers for what he called their failure to improve the funding system.
The new law is designed to meet a court mandate and would phase in a $293 million increase in aid to the state’s 286 school districts over two years. The measure also would establish a new finance formula that would have funded all-day kindergarten classes and increase money for programs designed to help low-performing students.
Even in signing the bill, the Republican governor expressed disappointment in its contents. The new funding formula resembles an old per-student formula that GOP lawmakers junked in 2015 in favor of predictable “block grants” for districts. Brownback was a vocal critic of the pre-2015 formula.
The conservative governor also has been an advocate of measures designed to help parents who are unhappy with their public schools but cannot afford private schools. The bill would expand a tax-credit program encouraging donations to private-school scholarship funds but otherwise doesn’t expand school-choice options. Conservatives also complained that it doesn’t do enough to hold public schools accountable.
“The Legislature missed an opportunity to substantially improve the K-12 funding system,” Brownback said in a statement.
But the governor also said the new formula would direct more of the state’s dollars into classrooms and encourage “responsible financial stewardship at the local level.”
State Rep. Melissa Rooker, a moderate Kansas City-area Republican who backed the new law, dismissed Brownback’s criticism of the new law.
“It appropriately reflects the direction Kansans wish to go with their public schools,” she said.
The Kansas Supreme Court ruled in March that the state’s $4 billion a year in education funding is inadequate. The justices rejected the block-grant system and gave lawmakers until June 30 to pass a new school funding law.
The court is expected to review the new law. John Robb, an attorney for four school districts that successfully sued the state, said they will object to the new law because they believe it falls hundreds of millions of dollars short of what adequately funding schools.
The Supreme Court did not set a specific figure for how much funding must increase, but the districts’ attorneys have pointed to a proposal from the State Board of Education to phase in a nearly $900 million increase over two years as evidence of what’s needed.
Robb said the state has the burden of showing that the new law fixes the problems cited by the court in its March decision and, “We don’t think the state can meet the burden.”
“They’ve designed a new car, but we don’t think they put enough gas in it,” Robb said.
Democrats took the districts’ attorneys arguments to heart and pushed for a larger spending increase. Some Republicans argued that they were boosting spending enough; others said the underlying finance formula is sound that they would take a chance that the court would order more spending.
Rooker said she believes that even if the court wants more spending, it will allow lawmakers to make the changes next year instead of forcing them to have a special session this summer.
The Dodge City, Hutchinson, Wichita and Kansas City school districts filed the lawsuit in 2010, arguing that Kansas doesn’t spend enough money on its schools and has distributed it unfairly, hurting poorer districts. The Supreme Court has ruled in previous cases that the state constitution requires legislators to finance a suitable education for every child.
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