Kansas GOP lawmakers advance plan to avert school closings

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Posted: Jun 23, 2016 8:00 PM
Kansas GOP lawmakers advance plan to avert school closings

TOPEKA, Kan. (AP) — Top Republicans advanced an education funding plan Thursday in the Kansas Legislature as the best way to satisfy a court mandate, pushing past doubts that it would avert a threatened shutdown of the state's public schools.

House and Senate committees approved separate but identical bills to boost state aid to poor school districts by $38 million in 2016-17. With Kansas facing an ongoing budget crunch, the plan mostly shuffles existing education dollars, redistributing money from 141 of the state's 286 districts, starting with wealthy ones.

Each Republican-dominated chamber planned to debate the plan Friday.

Lawmakers convened a special session Thursday to address a state Supreme Court order issued last month, and GOP leaders would like to wrap up the work Friday.

The urgency is dictated by the Supreme Court's warning in its ruling that schools might not be able to reopen after June 30 if lawmakers don't make education funding changes by then. The justices said the state's education funding system remains unfair to poor school districts, despite three rounds of changes in three years.

Republicans blocked potential changes to the plan during the Senate Ways and Means Committee's meeting. The House Appropriations Committee didn't consider any changes during its session.

"Trying to make something better is going to ruin it," said Republican Sen. Steve Fitzgerald, of Leavenworth. "Good enough is good enough."

About 150 parents, teachers and other advocates rallied outside the Statehouse as lawmakers had hearings on the plan, and dozens crowded committee rooms and hallways throughout the day. At the rally, they chanted, "Do your job!"

"I want my students to have the same chances and equal opportunities as students in any district," said Aubrey Kennedy, a 28-year-old middle school teacher from Kansas City, Kansas.

The Republican plan emerged after key GOP legislators negotiated with multiple school districts, including the Wichita and Kansas City districts, which are suing the state.

The plan received reluctant endorsement from superintendents of the Blue Valley and Shawnee Mission districts in the affluent Kansas City suburbs in Johnson County. Their districts along with the Olathe district in Johnson County would lose more than $6.1 million total in aid, according to legislative researchers.

They see the plan as a one-year fix to satisfy the court, and their backing is crucial to persuading the county's sizeable legislative delegations to vote for such a plan.

Wichita Superintendent John Allison said his district could accept the plan as a last resort, but Kansas City officials would not endorse it. The two districts together would gain nearly $10 million for 2016-17, according to legislative researchers.

The state already spends more than $4 billion a year on aid to its 286 districts. The Supreme Court's rulings have focused on whether the money is distributed so that all children receive a suitable education, whether they live in rich or poor areas. The justices will tackle whether Kansas spends enough overall on its schools later, possibly by early next year.

The state has been in and out of legal battles over education funding for decades, and the latest round began with a lawsuit filed in 2010 by the Dodge City, Hutchinson, Kansas City, and Wichita school districts. One of their attorneys, John Robb, said the GOP is unlikely to satisfy the Supreme Court — or avert a school shutdown — because it shuffles existing education dollars.

"The time for these shell games has passed," Robb said in an email to The Associated Press.

Similar concerns prompted Democrats and some GOP moderates to advocate alternatives for diverting funds from other parts of the budget to poor school districts. Republican Gov. Sam Brownback embraced a $38 million fix as he called lawmakers into special session earlier this month but didn't outline a funding plan.

Many Republicans remain upset with the court's latest ruling, arguing that it has overstepped its authority. On Thursday, the Senate Judiciary Committee approved a proposed amendment to the state constitution to prevent the courts from threatening to close schools in future lawsuits.

But a proposed constitutional change must be approved by two-thirds majorities in both chambers and go on the ballot for voters to consider, most likely not before November.

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