Kansas Senate, House break impasse on education finance compromise (The Topeka Capital-Journal)

Kansas House school finance negotiators succumbed to mounting pressure to make a deal Wednesday by accepting the Senate’s bill adding $90 million annually to public school spending in the next four years to comply with a Kansas Supreme Court order.

The top House negotiator, Rep. Kristey Williams, R-Augusta, said House GOP leadership agreed to run the package on the House floor Thursday. She made it clear in a scorching closing speech that the contents of Senate Bill 16 improperly allocated money to K-12 schools, would suck resources away from many deserving state agencies and that Senate Republicans allowed Democratic Gov. Laura Kelly to guide their deliberations.

“When you have the second floor working with the Senate hand-in-hand, what else can we do?” Williams said.

Sen. Molly Baumgardner, a Louisburg Republican and lead Senate education negotiator, pushed back against Williams’ assertion that Baumgardner had abandoned Republican principles. She said Williams was wrong to claim Senate Republicans “just don’t care” about demanding accountability for education spending.

“Let me simply say I am not going to get into tit-for-tat as to whether the Senate or the Senate Republicans don’t care,” Baumgardner said.

Williams was vexed the deal would contain a consumer price index feature for deciding school funding increases after 2022. She was troubled it wouldn’t include a certification system requiring districts to affirm tax dollars were dedicated first to students in the classroom. She said Senate negotiators and Kelly were “OK with bad policy on CPI-U, which is fiscally irresponsible.”

The deal was struck despite House Speaker Ron Ryckman, R-Olathe, pitching an alternative that could dramatically shrink new funding to 10 percent of the amount endorsed by the Senate and Kelly. A bipartisan chorus of lawmakers said Ryckman’s late-inning proposal had little chance of passing the House and Senate but would certainly be vetoed by the governor.

Negotiators had convened nearly a dozen times this week in an attempt to resolve disagreement on budget increases to K-12 education and an array of policy initiatives for public schools. The Supreme Court, which found last year’s $525 million, five-year education funding increase to be constitutional, expected lawmakers to add money this year to compensate districts for inflationary costs.

Portions of negotiations at the Capitol were contentious as the Senate held to its position adding $90 million annually for inflation in each of the next four years and linking subsequent adjustments to a consumer price index. The House hasn’t yet passed a school funding bill and repeatedly denounced the Senate’s strategy on funding. Eventually, after securing a handful of policy victories, the House negotiators agreed to the Senate’s spending blueprint.

The Legislature, scheduled to adjourn Friday for three weeks, would need to approve the deal by a simple majority to send the legislation to Kelly.

Ryckman spiced up the atmosphere by sharing with House GOP colleagues an alternative committing $126 million in inflation money to schools over four years. At the same time, he wanted the state to deposit over a three-year period a total of $240 million in escrow for use by public education if the Supreme Court determined extra was necessary.

Baumgardner said the House speaker’s two-page proposal wasn’t suitable for consideration by the House-Senate conference committee.

“It’s a slick piece of paper,” Baumgardner said. “No one has had opportunity to have input except one person. That is an example of why we do say Kansans deserve better.”

The Supreme Court set an April 15 deadline for legal briefs from the attorney general and lawyers for plaintiff school districts on the state’s solution to the inflation issue. Oral argument is set for May 9.

“They don’t have the votes for what Ryckman is trying to do,” said Senate Minority Leader Anthony Hensley, a Topeka Democrat on the Senate’s three-person negotiating team. “It’s absolutely imperative that we pass a school finance plan before we adjourn on Friday.”

Hensley said House Republicans were playing a dangerous game if their idea was to “thumb their nose at the court and try to force a constitutional crisis.”

The Senate bill would infuse $360 million into school districts if passed by the House and Senate, signed by the governor, accepted by the Supreme Court and fully funded by the Legislature through 2022.

Ryckman’s plan earmarked $17 million to early childhood education programs, $27 million to expand a mental health initiative to reduce teen suicide, and implement “accountability measures” to make certain state aid was directed at student achievement.

House and Senate negotiators did agree on new reporting of student achievement, accounting for bilingual education, state-funded ACT exams for students, retention of a dyslexia task force, an audit of district cash reserves and a few other issues.

Williams said lawmakers must concentrate resources on what transpired in classrooms and consider “everything else is excess.”

“We can have a beautiful building,” she said. “We can have all the fine arts, which are important by the way. We can have turf. But if we are not meeting the needs of the students in the classroom, the whole system fails.”

This article was originally published on The Topeka Capital-Journal website, here.