School Block Grants Advance In Kansas

By John Celock

Following a delay of over an hour to wait for missing yes votes, the Kansas House of Representatives voted Friday morning to pass legislation to overhaul the state’s school finance system.

The House voted 64-57 to pass the bill, which would replace the state’s current school funding formula with a two-year block grant program until a new formula can be designed. The vote followed a preliminary 64-58 approval by the House Thursday, but was in jeopardy for several hours while several lawmakers were not in the chamber and two Republicans switched their votes.

The bill has attracted opposition from Democrats and moderate Republicans, along with the state’s teachers union and parent groups, who say it will defund schools in the state. Supporters have said it will give local school districts more control over funds and lessen confusion about the school funding mechanism. Gov. Sam Brownback (R) called for the block grant program in his State of the State address in January.

Reps. Susan Concannon (R-Beloit) and Jim Kelly (R-Independence) both switched their Yes votes from Thursday to no votes on the final action, placing the bill in jeopardy. The vote was held open and lawmakers detained at their desks – except for speaker approved bathroom visits – for over an hour until Reps. Rob Bruchman (R-Leawood) and James Todd (R-Overland Park) arrived to provide the crucial votes. In addition, Rep. Sue Boldra (R-Hays) switched her original vote from no to yes after the arrival of Bruchman and Todd. Rep. Stan Frownfelter (D-Kansas City) voted yes at the beginning of Friday for procedural purposes relating to holding the vote but switched back to no following the missing lawmakers’ arrival.

Speculation had been that the vote could come down to Rep. Virgil Peck (R-Tyro) who had been attending an event in his district, which borders Oklahoma, with Brownback. Peck was being flown back to Topeka on a state plane following the call of the House but did not arrive before Todd and Bruchman.

Opponents used the explanation of the vote period following passage to continue to express opposition to the bill. They said that the bill would hurt students and said they opposed the process used to develop the legislation. While Brownback announced the plan in January and lawmakers have been drafting a block grants proposal since, the final bill was introduced last week and passed by the House Appropriations Committee on Tuesday following a day of hearings. The bill now heads to the state Senate.

“When handling the people’s funds the Leg should be calm, measured and engage all voices,” Rep. Stephanie Clayton (R-Overland Park), a moderate Republican, said in her explanation.

A group of Democrats used a joint explanation to say that the bill would create “inequalities across the state” and pit school districts against each other. House Democratic Policy Chairman John Wilson (D-Lawrence) said in an explanation on behalf of himself and Rep. Adam Lusker (D-Frontenac) that the legislation “ignores” students and school districts and would do more harm than good.

“This will hurt a whole generation of Kansans,” Wilson said.

Supporters did not speak during the explanation period, which is typically used mainly by opponents. During debate Thursday, they said that the bill will have many benefits for students and districts. House Appropriations Committee Chairman Ron Ryckman Jr. (R-Olathe) stressed Thursday that the bill will create more local control for districts. Under the block grant plan, state aid could be used across various aspects of school operations unlike the current plan, which places money into so-called “silos” that cannot be intermingled. The block grants would continue certain silos including for special education.

Supporters also pointed to pieces of the legislation that would increase funding for virtual school programs and funding for teacher pensions as reasons why the bill should pass.

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