Educators and some lawmakers weren’t sure which Jeff King they were going to hear from Thursday.
Would the House K-12 Budget Committee hear from the conservative former Senate vice president who pushed through block grants and tried to defund the courts? Or would they hear from a constitutional lawyer with experience litigating school finance cases in Kansas?
Turns out, it was the latter.
“I don’t think there’s anything he said that really threatens where the bill is going,” said Mark Tallman, the top lobbyist for the Kansas Association of School Boards.
Sen. Barbara Bollier, a Republican from Mission Hills who will help write the Senate’s school funding plan, said she was reassured by King’s analysis.
“He did a very nice job in presenting a good, solid legal foundation,” Bollier said.
The K-12 Budget Committee has been working on a school funding formula for months. It looks very much like a formula that was scrapped for block grants two years ago. But it also calls for an additional $750 million in new money for public schools over the next five years.
King was hired for $50,000 to help the Legislature write a bill and present its case for constitutionality to the state Supreme Court.
He made two main points to the committee about school finance: First, more money is better than less.
“The more money that is put in, the greater chance the court finds it constitutional,” he told the committee. “And what that limit is, I don’t know.”
And second, he said, the certainty of the revenue used to fund schools may be more important to the high court than the dollar figure.
“Funding that occurs today, next year, two years is more certain by definition than funding that occurs in five or six years,” King said.
The Legislature faces a projected $900 million budget hole in the next two fiscal years, so finding more money for education will be a challenge.
“Raising money sooner may be more difficult,” Tallman said. “Yet on the other hand, phasing in a plan means you also have to have a plan for that phased-in money.”
The committee has yet to approve the measure. Rep. Larry Campbell of Olathe, the committee’s chairman, said he hopes to work the bill Friday and maybe approve it then.
Any school funding bill still faces a long, hard slog after it gains the committee’s approval. Next up will be the Senate, whose members may have some different ideas. Most likely the bill will go to conference committee.
Whatever lawmakers do, they have to have a constitutional formula in place by June 30 — or the high court has said it will shut down schools.
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.