The crowd filling the old Supreme Court room at the Kansas Statehouse expected a bit of a showdown Wednesday when the House K-12 Budget Committee discussed how much money to put into public education.
In the end, that debate lasted about 10 minutes, and the committee stood pat on adding $150 million a year for five years for a total package of $750 million.
The plan aims to satisfy the Kansas Supreme Court, which ruled in early March that the current system is constitutionally inadequate and said without a fix, it will shut down public schools June 30.
Rep. Melissa Rooker, a moderate Republican from Fairway, isn’t sure $750 million is enough for the court. She tried to add $22 million more in the first year of the plan, but that proposal failed Wednesday on an 8-8 vote.
“All in all, I’m happy that we put a five-year escalation of funding in place,” Rooker said. “We’ll leave it to the wisdom of the court to decide if that’s too much time to be appropriate or not.”
Rep. Larry Campbell of Olathe, chairman of the committee, acknowledged that uncertainty.
“No one in this building knows the right number,” he said. “Only those judges across the street know.”
The committee didn’t actually approve the bill. Campbell said he wants to wait until the Legislature hires a constitutional lawyer to review the bill and determine whether it will satisfy the justices.
Campbell said he’ll call for a vote when lawmakers return May 1 for their wrap-up session.
Rep. Scott Schwab, a conservative Republican from Olathe, didn’t even want to discuss putting money into the plan until a lawyer is on board. Schwab said the committee was “taking a shot in the dark” without having a lawyer comment on funding.
Campbell rejected that: “I think we need to have a position for an attorney to look at.”
The committee thought it had a lawyer when leaders offered the job to former Sen. Jeff King of Independence. However, King failed to gain enough support in the Legislative Coordinating Council, so leaders are now searching for an attorney.
While $750 million in new spending may be enough to satisfy the high court, having it doled out over five years could be a problem.
Rooker offered a bill early in the session that would have spent about the same amount of money but over four years. The Kansas State Department of Education has said the state needs to spend about $800 million over two years to meet the Supreme Court’s adequacy test.
“We would have hoped that they would have shortened the number of years. Five years is a long time,” said David Smith of the Kansas City Kansas School District, one of the districts suing the state. “Having a little more at the front end probably would have helped with constitutionality.”
The funding plan resembles the formula scrapped two years ago in favor of block grants.
Sam Zeff covers education for KCUR and the Kansas News Service and is co-host of the political podcast Statehouse Blend Kansas. Follow him on Twitter @SamZeff.