Archive for Monday, March 9, 2015

Kansas Chamber backs GOP schools bill; educators opposed

March 9, 2015

— A business group and a small-government think tank Monday endorsed a plan from Republican legislative leaders to overhaul how the state distributes aid to public schools and prevent unexpected budget surprises.

The Kansas Chamber of Commerce's CEO and a lobbyist for the small-government, free-market espousing Kansas Policy Institute were the only witnesses testifying in favor of GOP legislators' plan when the House Appropriations Committee opened hearings on it.

Local school officials and lobbyists for education groups opposed the plan, but the chamber and policy institute are influential with conservative Republicans who control the Legislature.

And the comments from Mike O'Neal, the chamber's president and CEO, and James Franko, a lobbyist for the institute, mirrored what top Republican legislators have said about the state's current per-student funding formula. They contend the formula is too complex, sometimes produces weird allocations of money and doesn't put enough money into the state's classrooms.

Republican legislators' plan incorporates GOP Gov. Sam Brownback's proposal to jettison the current formula and give the state's 286 districts "block grants" based on their current aid instead. The new system would remain in place while the Legislature drafts a new formula.

Top Republicans have expressed frustration that the current formula can commit the state to unanticipated and automatic spending increases. The price tag for aid for the current school year jumped nearly $64 million after lawmakers set the state budget last year.

"It has become complicated and unwieldy to the point that it's actually creating some results that border on the absurd," O'Neal said, citing the unanticipated bulge in costs. "You have a historic opportunity here to fix that."

Franko's institute and O'Neal, a former Kansas House speaker, were strong supporters of aggressive personal income tax cuts enacted in 2012 and 2013 at Brownback's urging to stimulate the economy. Budget problems arose afterward, and lawmakers must now close a budget shortfall projected at nearly $600 million for the fiscal year beginning July 1.

Under GOP legislators' plan, school districts would lose $51 million of the aid they had expected to receive before the end of June, though they'd still be getting more money for the current school year than in 2013-14. Aid would top $4 billion for the current school year.

Republican leaders' plan would increase state aid in each of the next two school years, largely because of rising state contributions for teacher pensions.

School administrators and education lobbyists testified that the existing formula is complex because it covers costs that vary by district and as student populations change. For example, they said, the formula helps districts that see an influx of poor or academically at-risk students.

Jim Freeman, the Wichita school district's chief financial officer, also suggested that the GOP plan, in a bill running 97 pages, also is "pretty complex."

The House committee could vote as early as Tuesday on GOP legislators' plan. Its chairman, Rep. Ron Ryckman Jr., of Olathe, is one of the proposal's architects.

"One of my main concerns is that this bill is on such a fast track," Freeman said. "I think it requires a lot more consideration."

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