More than 100 people cheered Gov. Laura Kelly's signing Saturday of bipartisan legislation allocating $90 million in inflation-adjustment funding to Kansas public school districts and potentially bringing to close years of contentious litigation over constitutionality of education spending.
The Republican-led House and Senate approved a financing proposal recommended by Kelly, who pledged during her campaign last year to become "education governor" of Kansas. House conservatives inserted several pieces of education policy into Senate Bill 16. Kelly said those provisions weren't objectionable enough to warrant consideration of a veto.
The law will be reviewed in May by the Kansas Supreme Court, which has jurisdiction over whether funding to districts educating 450,000 public school students complied with the Kansas Constitution. The Supreme Court told lawmakers progress was made a year ago in resolving shortcomings, but more needed to be done.
"After a significant increase in funding last year," Kelly said, "this plan addresses the Kansas Supreme Court ruling and represents what we all hope to be the final step towards fully funding our schools and maintaining adequate funding in the years to come."
The House endorsed the bill 76-47 despite House Speaker Ron Ryckman, R-Olathe, and House Majority Leader Dan Hawkins, R-Wichita voting "no." GOP House leadership made a last-minute bid to interest colleagues in an alternative lowering state aid $200 million below the amount contemplated by the Senate and Kelly.
Hawkins said he didn't believe the state could afford the bill signed by the governor and Kansans deserved "real solutions and responsible management of their various resources."
The Senate sent the bill to the governor on a vote of 31-8, with Senate President Susan Wagle, R-Wichita, voting "yes."
Kelly expressed appreciation to both chambers of the Legislature for work on the education bill, but offered personal praise to Sen. Molly Baumgardner, R-Louisburg, Rep. Valdenia Winn, D-Kansas City, Sen. Jim Denning, R-Overland Park, and Sen. Anthony Hensley, D-Topeka, for shepherding the bill through negotiations.
"We held firm that we wanted to have a bipartisan bill," said Denning, the Senate's majority leader. "In my wildest dreams, I could not see the Supreme Court come back with anything other than 'good job.'"
"It is as if the moon and the sun and the stars are aligning," said Baumgardner, who didn't attend the bill-signing ceremony due to a funeral.
Hensley said negotiations on Senate Bill 16 were heavily influenced by the Senate's passage of the Kelly funding plan and the House's failure to pass a rival spending bill. Essentially, he said, the House didn't come to the table with a formal position.
The $90 million would be appropriated in each of the next four years before a consumer-price index kicked in to guide future inflation adjustments. The bill would inject a total of $360 million into public education during the plan's four-year run.
In 2018, the Supreme Court accepted a separate five-year, $525 million education spending increase approved by the Legislature and signed into law by Republican Gov. Jeff Colyer. However, the justices' order also indicated inflationary forces absorbed by districts for years should be addressed by the 2019 Legislature.
Kelly said the new law represented "a significant bipartisan effort to address the last remaining component of last summer's ruling" by the Supreme Court.
"It is a meaningful, reasonable plan that maintains the stability of the rest of the state's budget," said Kelly, a former state senator from Topeka. "The saga over public education funding has been long and hard. It's time for it to be settled."
Schools for Fair Funding, which represents the Hutchinson, Wichita, Dodge City and Kansas City, Kan., district plaintiffs in the case, were expected to argue in briefs due April 15 and during oral argument May 9 that the first year of funding was adequate but the second, third and fourth years of additional aid fell short.
Attorney John Robb expressed confidence the Supreme Court would reject the funding bill limited to $90 million annually and said the amount should be expanded by $90 million in each of the four years.
Under the bill signed by Kelly, the state would alter at-risk student programs, cover the cost of ACT examination of students, continue work of a dyslexia task force, and require auditing of school district cash balances and operation of bilingual education programs.