Kansas Lawmakers Narrowly Advance School Block Grants

By John Celock

By a narrow two-vote margin, the Kansas House of Representatives narrowly advanced a new school finance program Thursday.

The House voted 64-58 to give preliminary approval to a plan to replace the state’s current school finance system with a new block grant policy. The vote followed a three-hour debate where supporters said the changes would provide local control, while the opponents said the block grants would hurt children and cause teachers to leave the state. If two yes votes flip on Friday’s final House vote on the plan, the bill would die.

“We are trying to create budget certainty. We also want to increase the flexibilities for the schools to apply those funds that we give them,” House Education Budget Committee Chairwoman Amanda Grosserode (R-Lenexa) said while presenting the bill to the House. “This bill spends more than the governor’s budget.”

Gov. Sam Brownback (R) first proposed the block grants initiative in his State of the State Address in January as part of an overhaul to the school finance formula. Under the plan, the block grants to local school districts would replace the current finance formula until June 2017 to give state lawmakers time to devise a new funding formula. The current funding formula has been attacked by conservative Republicans, who say that it is not equitable to the entire state and is too complex. Advocates have said that the current funding formula has helped districts across the state.

Supporters of the block grant bill said the new system will provide local school districts more control over the state funds sent to them and allow them to move more money between line items in the budget. They said it would also take the Legislature out of the academic debate.

Opponents of the block grant bill said the new system would create more uncertainty, saying that the bill would allow for lawmakers or Brownback to move funds around quickly and that school districts would not be able to receive a direct aid amount tied to the formula. Critics also attacked that the actual bill was only unveiled a week ago and was presented to the House following a hearing Monday by the House Appropriations Committee, which advanced the bill after debate on Tuesday.

Rep. Don Hineman (R-Dighton), a moderate Republican opposed to the block grant bill, said that lawmakers do not have complete information. He dismissed the plan as “hastily developed” and told rural lawmakers that they should be weary that the schools superintendent in the Shawnee-Mission School District in the Kansas City suburbs was backing the bill.

Hineman compared the plan and the objections to the current formula to a decision he and his wife had when they bought a new house and the bathroom needed repair.

“Our plan didn’t involve lighting a match and burning the house to the ground,” Hineman said. ”We remodeled the bathroom and were happy. That’s what we’re being asked to do today. Tear the formula out and throw it in the trash.”

Rep. Valdenia Winn (D-Kansas City), the top Democrat on the House Education and Education Budget Committees, questioned the block grants bill’s ability to have access to a state extraordinary fund that would hand extra money as needed. The extraordinary fund would cover funds to equalize state aid for districts or to cover extraordinary activities.

Winn questioned Grosserode on what happens if a school district has to handle a school being struck by lightning and needed to access the extraordinary aid. Grosserode said the district could apply to the state Finance Council, a panel consisting of legislative leaders and chaired by Brownback, for the aid. Winn said that the Finance Council meeting might not be immediate, with Grosserode countering that under the current policy a district cannot access money immediately from the state if a building is hit by lightning.

Winn questioned if the block grants bill was helping districts.

“You’re selling us a bill of goods as certain,” Winn said. “Make the school districts and us feel certain about extraordinary aid.”

Winn noted that the current funding formula has worked for the last 23 years and that local school leaders understand the formula. She also said that under the current formula local leaders can be trusted that if they are given money for transportation of students the money will be spent on transportation.

House Appropriations Committee Chairman Ron Ryckman Jr. (R-Olathe), who helped write the block grants bill, said that local control is needed in the school finance arena.

“Some of us trust the local officials. We trust those of us who we elect,” Ryckman said. “This bill is about local control.”

Ryckman noted that under the current formula some of the richest school districts in the state have been labeled as impoverished and qualify for more aid. He said that the formula also allows for rural districts that have been losing students to actually be labeled as rich based on the calculations and lose funding from the state.

Rep. Diana Dierks (R-Salina), a moderate Republican, said that she stayed up until 2 a.m. Thursday morning responding to emails from constituents telling her to vote no. She noted that with her district “hiring me to sit in that seat” she wanted to listen to them. Dierks hinted that she felt her ultimate judge would not be her constituents though.

“There is a larger force who will determine where I end up when my days are over,” Dierks said. “There are changes that have been made and we’re diving into a deep well without a life preserver.”

Dierks also used her floor speech to advocate for the school district in Lincolnville, over an hour from her Salina district, where she noted her husband and children went to school and her grandchildren now attend. She said that under the virtual education funding component of the block grant bill Lincolnville could lose $700,000 from the state. She did not explain the details.

The Appropriations Committee added the virtual education component into the bill earlier this week. Grosserode, who sponsored the amendment, said the component would restore giving districts money for adult students who complete virtual education courses given by the district. Rep. J.R. Claeys (R-Salina) said earlier this week that the virtual education center run by the Salina school district would benefit from the funding.

Opponents unsuccessfully offered a series of amendments to the legislation. Rep. Annie Kuether (D-Topeka) proposed an amendment that would prevent Brownback from shifting funds out of the block grants to cover budget shortfalls over the two-year period. She noted that it would provide more certainty to the school districts. Brownback has the authority to make the budget shifts to cover shortfalls.

Supporters of the Kuether amendment blamed the tax cuts enacted by the Legislature and Brownback for causing a shortfall and said that students should not have to pay for it. Grosserode opposed the amendment saying it would handcuff Brownback.

Rep. Barbara Bollier (R-Mission Hills), a moderate Republican, said that she was worried that schools would not know how much funding they would receive and said that Grosserode’s opposition to Kuether proved that. Opponents said that they wanted more concrete numbers for districts.

“This amendment absolutely points out of my greatest problems with the bill on the floor,” Bollier said. “The fact that the carrier of the bill is opposed to an amendment that would guarantee the amount of money says this bill has no intention of keeping that amount of money in there. Voting for this bill is only to vote for a funding formula. There is no way to know based on our discussion today to know how much our schools will get at the end of this session.”

Ryckman said that Kuether’s amendment, which failed 33-89, would force Brownback to make any cuts from other parts of the budget including higher education, Medicaid and the Department of Corrections.

Among the other amendments pushed were one by Appropriations Committee Ranking Minority Member Jerry Henry (D-Atchison) to effectively gut the bill and one by House Democratic Agenda Chairman Brandon Whipple (D-Wichita) that would have referred the bill to the House Education Committee for further debate. Both were defeated.

Rep. Carolyn Bridges (D-Wichita), a teacher, expressed concern that teachers were not being respected by lawmakers and said the block grants bill would cause teachers to leave Kansas.

“I’d be amazed that if we keep the good teachers we have,” she said. “We have done nothing in this body to help teachers”

Rep. Scott Schwab (R-Olathe), who was presiding over the House for the debate, took the step of stepping down from the chair temporarily to address his colleagues. He said he wanted to address what he said were arguments that he and other supporters of the bill were against education.

“I’ve been called anti education and I have kids in the schools,” Schwab said. “It’s not the Legislature’s role to educate my children. It’s on me.”

Rep. Barbara Ballard (D-Lawrence) praised the state’s teachers and education advocates for their role and told her colleagues to keep that in mind during the vote.

“The quality of education in Kansas is that way because of teachers and people who care about it,” she said.