Kansas Gov. Sam Brownback has signed a school funding bill meant to satisfy a state Supreme Court ruling with potentially dire consequences. The court said in a February ruling that unless a plan was in place by June 30 to fairly distribute state aid to school districts, public schools could be shut down for next school year.
“The Legislature has acted to keep Kansas schools open, and I agree with its choice,” Brownback said in a statement Thursday. “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.”
The court will now review whether the measure complies with its order to equalize school funding among wealthier and poorer districts. The GOP-dominated Legislature overwhelmingly approved the bill March 24. It uses an equalization formula that reduces one type of aid to most of the state’s 286 districts, then distributes money back to districts to make sure none sees a reduction in funding.
Republican leaders in the Legislature said the measure satisfies the court ruling because the formula is one approved by the court. And the “hold harmless” provision made it politically and practically acceptable to many lawmakers and school district officials, they said. Overall spending for equalization was held nearly flat.
The Kansas Association of School Boards urged the court to quickly decide whether the new equalization plan is constitutional.
“If the court determines the law doesn’t comply with its equity test, we hope legislators will tackle the issue as quickly as possible to avoid a possible closure of schools this summer,” said Mark Tallman, the group’s associate executive director.
Four school districts Kansas City, Kan., Wichita, Hutchinson and Dodge City challenged school financing legislation passed in 2015. The court said in its Gannon ruling that the Legislature’s action last year did not comply with constitutional requirements for school funding.
The court ruling in February said the Legislature needed to approve a plan that fairly distributed funds among wealthier and poorer districts, or there would be no constitutionally valid school finance system for the fiscal year that begins July 1.
Jim McNiece of Wichita, chairman of the state Board of Education, would not say whether he thought the bill would satisfy the court’s order to fix equity.
But he expressed hope that the public conversations over school finance would evolve into more of a dialogue about the specific needs of students in the future instead of just the dollar amounts.
“We need to quit worrying about fighting over stuff that isn’t helping kids,” he said. “Change the conversation to ‘What do our kids really need?’ not ‘What’s the least amount of money we can do with the most efficient amount of time?’ This isn’t widgets. This is kids.”