A conference committee will hash out the differences between Kansas House and Senate school funding legislation. There will not be any Republicans who served on the Senate Education Committee on the conference committee, and that’s a concern of Sen. Molly Baumgardner, the Senate Education Chair.
The conference committee includes Sens. Jim Denning of Overland Park, Carolyn McGinn of Wichita, and Anthony Hensley of Topeka. The House members include Reps. Clay Aurand of Belleville, Larry Campbell of Olathe, and Ed Trimmer of Winfield.
“It was clearly decided by Senate President that she did not want to deal with a perceived optics that there was going to be overt influence from Johnson County on the education bill,” Baumgardner said.
Baumgardner lives in Miami County, but her district includes a sliver of southwest Johnson County. Her district includes a broad spectrum of school districts including Olathe, Blue Valley, Gardner-Edgerton, Paola, Louisburg, Osawatomie, and Wellsville.
“When you look at just how different those school districts are, you’ve got a little bit of everything, which is what Kansas is, a little bit of everything,” she said.
Traditionally, conference committees include the standing committee chairs and vice chairs and a ranking member of the minority party from both the Senate and the House. Though the Senate Education Committee spent hours conducting hearings on different aspects of school funding formulas throughout the session, Senate leadership appointed a special committee to address school finance halfway through the session.
“There’s a reason we had so many different hearings about the components of the prior formula in our education committee. So people really understood the different components,” Baumgardner said.
The Kansas Supreme Court ruled the current block grant funding system unconstitutional, and the Court’s opinion requires lawmakers to create an adequately calculated school financing formula no later than June 30.
Though the Senate bill closely resembles the House bill, the conference committee will be tasked with sorting out several variations between the bills. The proposals fully fund all-day kindergarten. Both set base state aid per pupil at $4,006 in 2017, but the Senate bill uses the actual spending of 41 school districts where students exceeded outcomes to determine base state aid. (There was a math error in the calculations, which could cost Kansans $83 million more than required in the Senate bill.) The House bill simply selected a starting figure for base state aid. The Senate bill also will require lawmakers to review base state aid in 2020. Language in both bills ties base state aid per pupil in outer years to an average CPI, but the Senate bill using a rolling average of CPI.
The Senate bill passed through the chamber by a vote of 23-16.
All but one of the Senate’s nine Democrats also voted against the bill. Baumgardner typically votes with the more conservative members of the Senate, but she broke with that coalition to vote in favor of the school finance bill.
“I felt like my hand was on every page of that hundred-and-some pages of the bill,” she said. “There were those who argued it wasn’t enough money, and those who argue it spends too much money. I thought of myself as Mama Bear trying to make sure we did our best to make it as close to just right as possible and not be overly burdensome on the taxpayers.”
She admits her vote in favor of the legislation may have been a “little out there.”
“That is a whole lot of spending to me, especially since we’ve had such a significant drop in the number of kids that are in Kansas schools, but I was willing to err a little bit on the part of being generous,” she said.
The House bill adds an additional $285 million in public education funding over two years. The Senate bill phases in $230 million of new funding.
In addition to crafting legislation that a majority of lawmakers in the House and Senate will approve, the conference committee will also be tasked with crafting legislation that Gov. Sam Brownback will sign or allow to become law. That’s not guaranteed.
Prior to the conference committee’s first meeting on June 1, Brownback issued a statement on school funding. He thanked lawmakers for their work so far on school funding.
“However, I do believe there remains some room for improvement,” the statement reads. The statement lists specific improvements he’d like to see before legislation reaches his desk, including expanding educational opportunities available to the bottom 25 percent of Kansas students.
The House bill restricts a scholarship tax credit that low income students in failing schools can use to attend private schools. Brownback didn’t mention the program specifically in his statement, but he said “we should reject the idea that a child’s zip code will determine their opportunities in the future.”
“Providing Kansas parents and students with more opportunities will ensure that low performing students have the ability to move to a school that meets their specific needs,” he said.
Brownback also requested that the finance proposal limit bond interest and aid so state money can be directed to classrooms, and the Governor proposed a five year sunset date so lawmakers would be required to review school financing every five years.
The Senate bill sunsets the school finance formula in 2027.