TOPEKA — Gov. Sam Brownback said Thursday he signed a school finance bill that lawmakers hope will satisfy the Kansas Supreme Court’s order to develop a more equitable education funding system.
The court likely will now order a new round of arguments as it seeks to render a verdict on the bill in a matter of weeks. Opponents have vowed to fight the legislation, but House Bill 2655 resulted from a “delicate legislative compromise,” Brownback said.
The court had given the Legislature a June 30 deadline to comply with its ruling, opening the possibility it could order schools shut if lawmakers failed to act. The governor, like many lawmakers, framed the bill as designed to keep schools open.
“I have signed Senate Substitute for House Bill 2655 because I want to keep our schools open and ensure our students continue to have access to a quality education,” Brownback said.
“I would remind those who criticized this bill as a ‘product of politics,’ that it is indeed the job of the Legislature to address these issues. The Legislature consists of 165 elected representatives of the people. I do not take their judgment lightly. This bill is the result of a delicate legislative compromise — one that I respectfully endorse and that the Court should review with appropriate deference.”
House Bill 2655 seeks to address a February court ruling striking down the state’s school finance formula as unconstitutionally inequitable between rich and poor districts. The bill applies an old formula used to determine capital outlay state aid to local option budget state aid and adds hold-harmless funding for districts that would lose cash under the change.
The governor’s office announced the bill signing Thursday. A signing statement from the governor indicates he signed the bill into law on Wednesday. About $80 million is affected by the legislation, out of more than $4 billion in annual education spending.
The bill passed the House 93-31 and the Senate 32-5.
Lawmakers approached House Bill 2655 like few others. The Legislature hired an attorney to help it create a record of proceedings. Transcripts of committee hearings, including one where an attorney questioned witnesses, are meant to more clearly show the court how the Legislature arrived at its decision.
Attorney General Derek Schmidt filed the Legislature’s response with the Supreme Court on Thursday. Schmidt asked the court to act quickly to avoid any possible school closure. The filing is more than 700 pages long.
Brownback, in his signing statement, said the information should assist the court in understanding the “deliberative process as it occurs in the Statehouse, as well as all of the data and material that informs the decisions of individual legislators.”
A constitutional protest filed by Democrats after passage of the bill also is part of the record the justices may review. The protest slammed the bill as a “product of politics” — a label Brownback rejected in signing the bill.
“The school finance bill Gov. Brownback has now signed into law is yet another example of his ‘Robin Hood in Reverse’ political ideology,” said Senate Minority Leader Anthony Hensley, D-Topeka. “The governor’s rubber-stamp Legislature has passed a bill that does absolutely nothing to fix the school equity crisis they created.
“Instead, they have chosen to reward wealthy school districts at the expense of poor school districts, risking school closures next school year.”
The ruling came as part of an ongoing lawsuit known as the Gannon case. The plaintiffs include a number of school districts. Additional rulings on the adequacy of educational funding could come next year.
The legislation signed by Brownback puts little additional state dollars toward education. Alan Rupe, an attorney for the plaintiffs in the Gannon lawsuit, called the bill a “slight of hand.”
“What they did was beyond our worst fears. They in fact made the system worse. They left the valleys where they were and gave the potential to raise the mountaintops,” Rupe said, referring to poorer and richer districts.
The bill includes $2 million in new funding, but takes it from the already-existing extraordinary needs fund. Rupe said the Legislature was simply shuffling money.
“It’s not even robbing Peter to pay Paul, it’s robbing Paul to pay Paul,” Rupe said.
Rupe said he anticipates the court could rule on the constitutionality of the bill by early May. Schmidt, in a filing with the court, requested oral arguments take place shortly after April 29 if needed.
The Kansas Association of School Boards said it hopes the state’s high court rules quickly. The association indicated that if the bill is struck down, legislators need to tackle the issue as quickly as possible to avoid a potential closure of schools this summer.