Kelly signs school funding bill but cool to some elements

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Democratic Gov. Laura Kelly on Monday signed a bill constitutionally funding schools although acknowledging she had misgivings about certain provisions intended to encourage school choice.

The bill signed into law would provide $5.2 billion to satisfy a state Supreme Court ruling requiring the state to adequately fund public schools while expanding a program that provides tax credits for donations to private school scholarships.

The legislation opens the door to more students by expanding the scholarship program to cover public school students who are eligible for free as well as reduced lunches and are enrolled in kindergarten to the eighth grade.

The scholarships, limited to $8,000 a year for each student, are now available to students who are eligible for free lunches and are enrolled in one of the state’s 100 lowest-performing elementary schools for student achievement.

“I’ve made it clear that there are parts of this bill I don’t like, but as governor I am committed seeking bipartisan solutions and working across the aisle to get things done for Kansas families and for Kansas businesses,” Kelly said.

“Ensuring that kids have access to a quality education not only helps them succeed, it helps our businesses succeed, it promotes economic development by providing employers a highly educated, skilled work force,” she said.

Schools for Fair Funding, the group that challenged school funding in court, praised the bill signed into law on Monday.

The bill “continues the progress towards an equitable and adequate school finance formula for our Kansas school children,” the group said in a statement.

“It has been a long and difficult journey from 2011 when our members made the decision to challenge the existing formula in Kansas District Court.

“Work still remains and we encourage continued bipartisan efforts to continue to ensure Kansas has a strong public education system.”

Two years ago, the state Supreme Court approved the Legislature’s school funding plan but kept jurisdiction of the case to ensure the state complied with its order.

Kelly took exception to a provision of the bill that expanded the scholarship program that gives up to $10 million a year in state tax credits to entice businesses and individuals to donate money to a scholarship program for private schools.

During the 2020-2021 school year, 632 students were awarded private-school scholarships totaling approximately $2.0 million, a state report shows.

For tax year 2020, there were $3.5 million in contributions to scholarships, leading to $2.5 million in tax credits.

Since the program began in 2015, there have been $15.2 million in total scholarship contributions, with a total of $10.7 million in claimed tax credits.

At no point since the program started in the 2015-16 school year, has the state come close to reaching the $10 million limit on the pogram.

“I wasn’t very enthusiastic about expanding the eligibility on the scholarship program,” said Kelly who voted in 2014 against creating the program as a state senator.

“It’s sort of an indirect way of directing taxpayer dollars to private schools,” she said.

“I’m not enthusiastic about that, but it was not as onerous as the educational savings accounts,” she said.

Republican lawmakers backed off a proposal that would have created education savings accounts, which would have allowed at-risk students attending public schools to take their state base aid – about $4,500 a year – to a private school.

While the issue was dropped this year, it is expected to return next year.

Schools for Fair Funding warned that future efforts to encourage school choice could put the school funding formula in legal peril.

“Any attempt to divert resources away from public schools ultimately will handicap efforts to maintain adequate and equitable funding,” the group said.

“We ask policymakers to continue to focus on the importance of a constitutionally funded school finance formula as the best opportunity for Kansas school children and their families to receive the education they so richly deserve.”

House Speaker Ron Ryckman Jr. and Republican state Rep. Kristey Williams, chair of the K-12 education budget committee, said the bill honors the state’s education funding commitments.

“This bill allows us to fully fund our public schools while also making sure options are available for diverse learners who may need additional resources to reach their fullest potential,” they said in a joint statement.

The Kansas Catholic Conference called the bill “a real game changer for thousands of parents seeking new educational opportunities for their children.

“This is an historic step forward for in educational opportunity for Kansas families who need it the most,” said Chuck Weber, executive director of rhe Catholic Conference.

Weber estimated that expansion of the scholarship program would cover an extra 230,000 students in Kansas.

Mark Desetti, lobbyist for the Kansas National Education Association, said he would have preferred not to see the scholarship program expanded but at the very least the Legislature didn’t raise the $10 million cap on the progam.

“It’s not as horrible as it could have been,” he said

“Overall, the bill is good. It does what we need done,” he said. “We have that piece in there that is disturbing.”

The new law also would reduce state aid for students for who attend school remotely for an extended period of time, a response to the pandemic where students were forced out of the classroom for months.

The bill would reduce yearly per-pupil state aid to $5,000 if a full-time student attends school remotely for more than 240 hours during a state of emergency or 40 hours in the case where there was no emergency.

The bill also would direct the state Education Department to allocate $5.0 million for
school safety and security grants, $3.9 million for expanding a mental health pilot program and $100,000 for for the Communities in Schools program.

The money would come federal COVID-19 relief fund unless the program doesn’t qualify for the money.

The bill also recommends that school districts provide additional compensation, of up to
$500, to classroom teachers, para professionals, and other school district hourly employees from federal COVID-19 relief funds.