Brownback urges Kansas House to pass GOP school funding plan
Topeka Republican Gov. Sam Brownback is urging Kansas House members to support a plan from top GOP lawmakers to overhaul how the state distributes aid to public schools.
Legislators who drafted the plan up for debate in the House Thursday argue that it would give schools predictable but flexible funding through the 2016-17 school year in difficult budget times. The plan also would help the state control its costs by junking its per-student aid formula, which in some years forces unanticipated and automatic increases in aid.
The plan incorporates Brownback's proposal to give districts "block grants" based on their current aid for the next two school years, until lawmakers draft a new formula. He and other Republicans say the current formula is too complex and directs too much away from classroom learning.
Republican legislative leaders are moving quickly. The House's debate came a week after top GOP lawmakers outlined the plan publicly.
"It moves things in the right direction and it gives us the time — two years — to write a new funding formula, which is what we need," Brownback said Wednesday.
Many educators dislike the plan because the state's 286 school districts would lose $51 million of the $4.1 billion in state aid they expected to receive for the current school year. Critics of the plan contend districts will trim programs.
There's also bipartisan criticism of jettisoning the state's existing formula without knowing what will replace it over the long term. Defenders of the current formula say it's flexible, adapting funding quickly to changes in student populations.
"The block grant bill is all about, 'Trust me,'" said Rep. Tom Moxley, a Council Grove Republican. "There's not a lot of trust right now in this Capitol building."
Aid to public schools is the biggest item in the state budget, and settling the amount is important to resolving other budget and tax issues.
Brownback and the GOP-dominated Legislature must close a budget shortfall projected at nearly $600 million for the fiscal year beginning July 1. The state's fiscal problems arose after lawmakers aggressively cut personal income taxes in 2012 and 2013 at Brownback's urging to stimulate the economy.
Yet top Republicans note that under the bill, schools still would receive $176 million, or 4.5 percent, more in aid in the current school year than they did during the 2013-14 school year. Lawmakers last year boosted aid to poor districts to comply with a Kansas Supreme Court mandate in a lawsuit filed in 2010.
State aid would continue to rise over the next two school years, mostly because of increased contributions to teacher pensions. Districts could raise as much local property tax revenues as they do now to supplement state funds, and they'd have more flexibility in tapping reserve funds.
"Most people will realize they enjoy the more flexibility and the more money they can get to the classroom," said House Appropriations Committee Chairman Ron Ryckman Jr., an Olathe Republican.