Two steps forward and one step back — that's the direction the Kansas Legislature seems to be heading after the passage of two bills, addressing both a new school financing formula and a tax plan to address the state's budget shortfall, late Monday night.
Governor Sam Brownback has already stated he will veto the tax bill — which would raise $1.2 billion over two years by increasing income tax rates and ending an exemption for more than 330,000 farmers and business owners — and neither the House (26-14) nor the Senate (69-52) would have enough votes to override that veto, based on Monday's results.
For now, there is more hope of the funding formula for public education in Kansas moving forward among both legislators and educators. The latest bill proposes an increase of $293 million phased into public schools over the next two years, creating a new per-pupil funding formula and ensuring more money goes towards programs that help low-performing students and all-day kindergarten classes.
"I think the structure of the formula looks pretty good. I think it makes sense to have the weightings for different populations and those types of things," said USD 373 Assistant Superintendent of Human and Fiscal Services Russell Miller. "There are a few parts that my guy says will probably raise an eyebrow with the Supreme Court, but I think those things could be modified fairly easy."
Most notably, in Miller's eyes, the issue of adequate funding remains. While the new per-pupil formula has been adjusted for inflation since the School District Finance and Quality Performance Act passed by the Kansas Legislature in 1992, the less than $300 million in additional funding does not meet the $800 to $900 million mark (also adjusted for inflation) the Kansas State Board of Education predicted would constitute the necessary level of funding.
That target was one the state board set to help all the school districts across Kansas move closer to meeting Rose Capacities (i.e. sufficient vocational skills for students, sufficient communication skills, etc.) — and Miller is unsure if the new formula passed by the Legislature will meet the Supreme Court's muster.
"Will the court say, 'ok, you're close enough?' I don't know. I think that's the million dollar question," Miller said.
Some legislators and educators feel the formula will be approved, as the Supreme Court never set a hard target or exact figure to be met when it came to funding increases. However, House Representative Tim Hodge (D-North Newton) is not among that group. Hodge ultimately voted against the bill, stating the finance formula does not meet either of the constitutional requirements — adequacy and equitability — laid out by the Supreme Court.
"The court wanted us to provide a steady, predictable and adequate amount of funding for our schools and, this bill, (although it) raised money for schools, I don't think it really hits the adequacy mark, nor does it provide a steady, predictable system of funding schools," Hodge said. "I took an oath to uphold the constitution up here, and to do it in my law practice, and I'm not going to be on an unconstitutional bill."
Hodge said along with not meeting the adequacy requirements, he saw issues with the equitability of the new school finance formula that was passed and the weighting of funding for more populous areas — and does not predict an end to the process anytime soon.
Noting there is a possibility the Supreme Court may rule that the formula meets enough criteria for the time being (allowing for further work in next year's legislative session), Hodge leans more towards a second outcome that would see the court ruling against the new funding formula and ordering the Legislature back for a special session in the summer.
Miller admitted he foresees a similar ruling coming from the Supreme Court, though before it can even do so, Gov. Brownback must take action regarding the legislation passed by the House (67-55) and Senate (23-17). Even if he gives the go-ahead on the school finance bill in the coming days, Miller noted he has heard projections that a decision wouldn't be made by the court until mid-July.
For the schools, that presents another issue to deal with, as districts are normally working on budgets through July, with a deadline to submit a final budget to county clerks by Aug. 25. With the financing formula still up in the air, districts across the state are unable to make the necessary preparations.
"It's really hard for us on the planning side of the district to work around all of those scenarios and do our work effectively to get ready for the coming school year," Miller said.
Though there has been some progress made, there is still a lot of work ahead as the Legislature works to set a concrete funding formula for public schools in Kansas.
— The Associated Press contributed to this story.