TOPEKA (AP) — Kansas lawmakers on Thursday advanced the first piece of a plan to satisfy a state Supreme Court mandate on public school funding, a bill designed to make the distribution of education dollars fairer to poorer areas.
The bill's approval by a special Senate committee on school finance came on the 69th day of the Legislature's scheduled 90-day annual session and represented the first significant movement on the biggest issue facing lawmakers this year. The full Senate expects to debate the measure next week.
The Supreme Court ruled in October that the state isn't spending enough money on its public schools to provide a suitable education to every child, as required by the Kansas Constitution. The court also ruled that parts of the formula for distributing more than $4 billion a year in aid favor wealthier districts.
The measure makes the fixes sought by the court on the fairness issues, but it does not significantly boost spending on public schools. Lawmakers expect the debate over how much to increase education funding — and how to pay for any increase — to be far more contentious.
"This is a sign that we are going to continue to march forward," said the Sen. Molly Baumgardner, a conservative Louisburg Republican and the committee's chairwoman.
Lawmakers waited to act on any school finance measures until they received a study of potential educational costs from two out-of-state consultants. But the Republican leaders who hired the consultants were stunned last week when the resulting report said improving schools might cost as much as $2 billion a year, depending on how ambitious its goals are.
The Supreme Court's ruling came in a lawsuit filed in 2010 by four local school districts. The justices ordered the state's lawyers to report on the Legislature's fix by April 30 and scheduled a hearing on it for May 22.
"It's basically a dysfunctional process here," Senate Minority Leader Anthony Hensley, a Topeka Democrat, said after the committee's action. "We could have done this weeks ago."
The Senate committee's bill eliminates a provision of the state finance formula that guarantees a minimum payment to each district for programs that help at-risk students, even if the number of students wouldn't warrant it. The measure also repeals a provision allowing districts to use property tax dollars raised for equipment and repairs on other costs, such as utilities.
The Supreme Court said both provisions unfairly favored wealthier districts over their poorer cousins and violated the state constitution.