TOPEKA (TNS) — Then-Gov. Sam Brownback came under intense attack from some Republicans in January when he proposed increasing school funding by more than $500 million over five years.
The proposal made Kansas’ school finance situation a “hell of a lot worse,” one top Republican said at the time.
But for all the criticism Brownback faced then, the Legislature ended up passing a plan early Sunday that will boost funding by roughly the same amount.
The bill lawmakers approved increases funding to schools by roughly $500 million over five years. Brownback’s plan was pitched as an increase of $600 million over five years, but about $87 million of that amount had already been approved.
Lawmakers are divided over what role Brownback’s proposal played in the plan that passed.
"It's the Brownback plan," said Rep. Brett Parker, D-Overland Park.
"I think the courts will say that he was wrong on it," Parker said. "I think Brownback directed the Republican position, is more accurate to say."
Others acknowledged similarities, but said lawmakers came to their own conclusions about how much money was needed.
"I think that winding up at those numbers came from entirely separate track," said Rep. Steven Johnson, R-Assaria.
"And perhaps they had done the same numbers and we were just unaware of that to arrive there. But I think both numbers perhaps validate each other. But i don't know that necessarily one led the other."
The House and Senate passed the bill with the bare minimum number of votes needed. The plan comes in response to a Kansas Supreme Court decision last fall that found schools are inadequately funded under the state constitution.
Gov. Jeff Colyer, who had been Brownback’s lieutenant governor, is expected to sign the bill. The court will rule later this spring on whether the new funding is adequate.
The plan includes $2.8 million to allow more students to take the ACT exam. Brownback also called for additional access to the ACT.
A breakdown of what individual school districts would receive wasn't available Sunday. Among other things, the bill provides $10 million for a pilot program for mental health intervention teams and $15,000 for a pilot program designed to prevent foster children from dropping out of school in the Wichita, Topeka and Kansas City schools districts.
Supporters of the $500 million plan say Kansas can pay for it without a tax increase. Brownback said the same.
On Sunday, Colyer said he had wanted a school funding plan that didn’t require a tax increase. “I believe that this bill, while it’s had a robust debate, has actually achieved those things,” he said.
Opposition to the bill from conservative Republicans focused on its affordability. Senate President Susan Wagle, R-Wichita, and Senate Majority Leader Jim Denning, R-Overland Park, spoke out against the plan. They were also two of the most vocal critics of Brownback’s plan in January.
“I’m here for the people that are footing the bills. My caucus has seen the runs and they know what voting for this bill means. It means unpredictability, it means everything else gets starved for K-12,” Wagle said.
In January, Wagle said Kansas wouldn’t be able to afford Brownback’s plan without a major tax increase.
“They thought the $600 million was too much, they thought the $500 million was too much. So they were pretty true to their principles,” said Sen. Laura Kelly, D-Topeka. “The rest of us — the Republicans who did vote for this and the Democrats — actually thought the $600 was right about on target and we went ahead and voted for this because it was all we had and we needed to get something to the court.”
House Majority Leader Don Hineman, R-Dighton, said lawmakers worked through the numbers to find the right funding amount.
The figure lawmakers settled on was based on numbers the Supreme Court had accepted in a previous case with adjustments for inflation and student enrollment, he said.
“It turned out that the additional money we needed was $522 million. You spread that over five years and it looks a lot like the Brownback suggestion, but I would say that's coincidental,” Hineman said.
Rep. Tom Cox, R-Shawnee, said the plan the Legislature passed wasn’t what Brownback wanted. He thinks Brownback spoke with Republicans about what they thought was feasible and that Brownback simply got out ahead of others and took credit.
“I think that was supposed to be his screw you to us, where he thought, ‘I'm going to back you guys into a corner. I'm going to set a number so now as you guys try to negotiate on this, you can't go lower than my number. I was a conservative governor who just said you need this amount.’ And so I think that was his intention,” Cox said.
“I'd be really curious to know his reaction now that it has passed."
Brownback, now ambassador at large for international religious freedom, couldn’t be reached Sunday.