Kansas lawmakers pass funding hike, school ‘choice’ proposal

TOPEKA, Kan. (AP) — Kansas legislators on Friday easily approved a bipartisan measure boosting education spending to what was touted as full funding for public schools while also making more students eligible for private school scholarships.

The Republican-controlled Senate approved the measure, 35-4, and the GOP-controlled House passed it, 107-9, sending the package of dollars and policy changes to Democratic Gov. Laura Kelly. Almost all of the no votes came from conservative Republicans.

The governor signaled that she would sign the bill by publicly taking credit for it. Kelly, facing a potentially difficult 2022 reelection race, said she had “delivered on education, and did right by our kids.” The bill would increase aid to the state’s 286 school districts by 5.3%, to $5.2 billion.

“As we continue to recover from the global pandemic, it’s more important than ever that we support Kansas students by giving them every opportunity to thrive and succeed,” Kelly said in a statement.

The education bill helped complete a spending blueprint for state government of about $21 billion for the budget year beginning July 1. Legislative were pushing to have lawmakers wrap up their business for the year by early Saturday.

A second bill contained dozens of spending items across state government. The House approved it, 98-21, and the Senate passed it, 26-12, sending it to Kelly.

In the education bill, conservatives did get a key “school choice” initiative into the package. However, they dropped a more ambitious proposal to use state dollars to create education savings accounts that the parents of struggling public school students could use to pay for private schooling.

“Everybody feels like they lost a little something and gained a little something,” Senate President Ty Masterson, an Andover Republican, told reporters.

Masterson and House Speaker Ron Ryckman Jr., an Olathe Republican, bargained with Kelly on Thursday as three senators and three House members drafted the final version of the education bill.

The bill had strong support among Democrats because it contained education groups’ top priority, the K-12 funding increase.

“We’re happy tonight,” said Rep. Valdenia Winn, a Kansas City Democrat, who has frequently criticized Republicans’ work on education issues.

The bill included Kelly’s proposal for an increase in state aid to local schools of $263 million, in line with a law enacted in 2019 to resolve a 2010 lawsuit against the state filed by four school districts. That lawsuit remains before the Kansas Supreme Court, and Democrats believe failing to provide as much money as Kelly recommended will prompt the justices to intervene.

“Obviously, we don’t want to get full funding with a lot of other unacceptable things, but this plan is a pretty substantial compromise,” said Mark Tallman, a lobbyist for the Kansas Association of School Boards.

The measure would modify a program that gives a state income tax credit for donations to funds that give private school scholarships to students in the 100 lowest-performing public elementary schools.

The total tax credits would remain capped at $10 million a year, but any elementary or middle school student who receives free or reduced-cost lunches would be eligible for scholarships. The tax-credit cap has never been reached.

Republicans pushed a bill through the House last month that tied Kelly’s proposed spending to conservatives’ proposal for education savings accounts. Democrats and education groups argued that education savings accounts would siphon tens of millions of dollars from public schools, and the measure failed in the Senate on a 20-20 vote.

Rep. Kristey Williams, an Augusta Republican and the chair of a House committee on education spending, said the scholarship expansion is a “great” step forward and the debate over the more ambitious savings-account plan “made huge strides in identifying what would be best for our kids.”

“Providing an opportunity for kids that are at-risk is still high on our to-do list,” Williams said.

The bill would make a raft of policy changes, including new restrictions on local school districts’ use of the remote learning that became common during the coronavirus pandemic.

The other budget legislation included an additional $53 million for higher education. Kelly’s budget director has said the extra money is necessary under a federal requirement to maintain “historic funding” for Kansas to get its full share of federal coronavirus relief funds.

The measure had an additional $17 million to increase pay for state court employees, including judges, and hire 70 new court services officers. It also authorized $120 million in bonds to renovate a 1950s state office building near the Statehouse and another $65 million in bonds to build a new state Department of Health and Environment lab in the Topeka area.

House and Senate budget negotiators didn’t include a pay raise for all state employees. Senators argued that taxpayers would be angry after thousands of people lost their jobs and businesses closed during the pandemic.


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John Hanna
John Hanna
Kansas government and politics reporter