Kansas lawmakers to debate schools, lessening court’s power


TOPEKA, Kan. (AP) — Kansas legislators moved Thursday toward a fight over increasing education funding to satisfy a state Supreme Court mandate to help poor schools, as some Republicans continued to vent their frustrations over what they see as judicial overreach.

The state House and state Senate judiciary committees held a joint meeting to consider both a short-term education funding fix and a longer-term proposal for curbing the courts’ power to force such changes in the future.

Republican Gov. Sam Brownback called a special session of the GOP-dominated Legislature for June 23 to address a state Supreme Court decision last month that the state’s education funding system is unfair to poor school districts.

The court warned that public schools might remain closed across the state unless legislators rewrite school finance laws by June 30.

Brownback has embraced a proposal to increase total education funding by $38 million for 2016-17 to help the poor school districts, and the idea has some bipartisan support. School superintendents and chambers of commerce in Johnson County in the Kansas City area endorsed a $50 million plan to protect more affluent districts wouldn’t lose aid to help poor ones.

But Kansas faces an ongoing budget crunch, and the president and CEO of the influential Kansas Chamber of Commerce told lawmakers that they don’t have to increase overall spending to meet the court’s mandate.

Meanwhile, many Republicans remain angry about the court’s decree, which GOP state Sen. Mary Pilcher-Cook, of Shawnee, called “coercive.” State Senate Judiciary Committee Chairman Jeff King has proposed amending the state constitution to prevent the courts from threatening to close schools in the future.

“I think there’s a lot of frustration all around,” King, an Independence Republican, said during a break.

The committee expected to debate proposals Friday. Any potential constitutional change sought by Republicans would have to go before voters for their approval — and they likely wouldn’t weigh in until the November election.

Education groups and Democrats oppose such efforts, arguing that the state Supreme Court is properly exercising its power to rule on whether the education funding system complies with the Kansas Constitution.

But state Rep. Jim Ward, a Wichita Democrat, said “people have to vent” as a first step toward drafting a school funding fix.

“At some point in time, reasonable people have to get in a room and put together a plan,” Ward said.

Kansas has been in and out of legal battles over education funding for nearly three decades, and the latest round began with a lawsuit filed in 2010 by the Dodge City, Hutchinson, Wichita and Kansas City, Kansas, school districts.

The state provides more than $4 billion a year in aid to its 286 local school districts, but the court ruled in February that poor districts weren’t getting their fair share. Republican lawmakers responded by rewriting school finance laws, but the revisions didn’t change the amount of aid most districts would receive. The court then rejected some of the changes.

The plan Brownback has advanced to increase overall state aid by $38 million has bipartisan support. Mark Tallman, a lobbyist from the Kansas Association of School Boards, endorsed it during a hearing Thursday. Supporters see it as the surest way of satisfying the court.

But under that plan, wealthier districts would lose funds that would be redistributed, particularly in Johnson County, the state’s most populous county and a GOP stronghold. Five Johnson County districts and chambers of commerce are backing a $50 million plan that contains enough extra money to prevent any district in the state from losing aid.

“If you don’t have a hold harmless provision, you have winners and losers in the process,” Jim Hinson, the superintendent of the Shawnee Mission district , said during a news conference.

Yet Kansas Chamber CEO Mike O’Neal, a former state House speaker, said nothing in the court’s last ruling mandates extra spending, and King agrees. O’Neal suggested that legislators could have the State Department of Education reallocate existing dollars — and redistribute unused cash reserves now held by school districts.

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Also contributing was Associated Press writer Jim Suhr from Overland Park, Kansas.

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Follow John Hanna on Twitter at https://twitter.com/apjdhanna .