Kansas School Block Grants Bill Moves Forward

By John Celock

An overhaul to state aid to schools in Kansas has passed a legislative committee and could reach Gov. Sam Brownback’s (R) desk soon.

The House Appropriations Committee voted Tuesday to approve the plan to replace the state’s current school funding formula with a block grant program for the next two years. Brownback called for the block grants in his State of the State Address earlier this year as a temporary replacement for the controversial funding formula. Legislative budget leaders introduced the block grant bill last week. Brownback has called on lawmakers to devise a new funding formula during the period of the block grant.

“I am supportive of the bill. I have supported a new formula before I even ran for public office,” House Education Budget Committee Chairwoman Amanda Grosserode told The Celock Report. “Our local schools and chambers of commerce have had a new formula as part of their platform for quite some time. This bill gets us a step closer to that new formula. By ending the current formula, we will need to replace the block grants with a new formula after two years.”

The block grant plan has garnered opposition from local school districts and various education advocates who have said that it would deprive local districts of funds and warned of potential cuts to academic programs. Grosserode said the block grant program would protect districts.

“Schools will be funded at the level from the amount appropriated in the budget when we left Topeka last year with the increases to KPERS being fully funded,” she said. “The allotments are restored and legislative intent from our FY15 budget is allocated.”

An analysis by the Topeka Capitol-Journal indicated that poorer school districts could see cuts from the block grants based on changes to the equalization aid formula that covers differences in between what local districts can finance to provide equal funding between districts. Supporters have said that the block grant program will allow districts to receive extraordinary aid in addition to the block grant in order to equalize funding.

Critics of the current system have said it has given more aid to wealthier school districts. The school finance debate has become one of the top issues in Kansas, including dominating last year’s gubernatorial race. Many lawmakers from suburban Johnson County have vowed to fight any changes to the formula, while those from other parts of the state have said a change is needed to help other school districts.

“The current system treats wealthy districts as impoverished,” Rep. J.R. Claeys (R-Salina), told The Celock Report. “There’s no doubt the system is broken now and needs to be fixed now.”

The Appropriations Committee approved the measure by placing the block grant bill in a previously approved Senate bill relating to information technology audits – a process known as “gut and go” – that would allow the Senate to approve the bill and speed up the legislative process. Critics have accused Republicans of rushing the bill, while supporters note that the committee handled a series of amendments Tuesday and had lengthy discussion.

Supporters note the block grant bill needs to be addressed in order to move to other parts of the budget.

“I alone was able to solve several issues through amendments over the course of the hearings and working the bill,” Claeys, an Appropriations Committee member, told The Celock Report. “We need to resolve the block grant to move forward with the rest of the budget process.”

Rep. Jim Ward (D-Wichita) though said he believes state residents should be angered with the process.

“Seventy plus page bill that makes radical changes in the way we fund schools has only been public for three legislative days and is continually changing,” Ward told The Celock Report. “It is shameful and will harm Kansas school kids.”

Grosserode noted though that the block grant proposal has been discussed since Brownback’s speech in January.

“It has been known for months that block grants were being worked on. The specifics may not have been known within the bill, however the concept of block grant is fairly simple and most understood the meaning and intent,” she said. “Others had the same amount of time to work up alternate proposals should they have desired. We had a hearing. We have worked the bill. All committee members were able to put forth amendments and speak in opposition to the amendments and bills. The debate was not cut short at all. This will move forward as any other bill.”

Tuesday’s committee debate featured a series of amendments, including discussion of mandatory sunsets of the block grant program. Claeys successfully proposed an amendment that would continue state financing for new facilities that has been promised in past years.

He noted the amendment would help a series of school districts around the state including in Salina.

“Salina voters approved a plan that included a state commitment to assist for two years with teacher salaries,” Claeys said. “It’s important to my district that the commitment is kept as we start up all-day kindergarten in Salina.”

Grosserode successfully pushed an amendment that would allow for state aid to virtual schools for adults upon completion of course credits. She noted the amendment would restore the ability for virtual schools across the state to receive the funds. She said though the change to award the funds after the completion of a course credit would address concerns raised by auditors.

“This addresses the issues raised in the Legislative Post Audit in reference to the lack of accountability and students entering the program without completion,” she said.

The next step for the bill will be the House floor, potentially this week. Supporters stressed that lawmakers will be able to thoroughly debate the bill and offer amendments during floor debate.

Supporters though stressed the need to adopt the block grants in order to move forward with the state budget and the overall rewriting of the formula. They said the formula overhaul was needed.

“We have been under the current finance scheme since 1992,” Claeys said. “Twenty-three years later, it’s time to evaluate and adjust to the changing needs of our students with a new state funding mechanism.”

Ward though questioned the entire debate.

“Massive cut to public education, done in a way to hide real impact,” he said. “The citizens of Kansas should be outraged what is being done to their schools.”