Leaders address governor’s school funding proposal

Republican legislative leaders Thursday expressed displeasure with Gov. Sam Brownback’s school funding plan, while Kansas Education Commissioner Randy Watson commended the proposal and House Minority Leader Jim Ward, D-Wichita, said many of Brownback’s statements this week on education were positive.

Their comments came during the KASB/USA-Kansas Advocacy in Action conference. Nearly 100 education leaders attended the conference in Topeka despite wintry weather conditions that forced closures statewide.

Senate President Susan Wagle, R-Wichita, and Senate Majority Leader Jim Denning, R-Overland Park, said the proposal by Brownback, also a Republican, for a $600 million increase in school funding by 2022 was a huge departure from his previous positions.

Wagle said such a K-12 funding increase would require a large tax increase because of other budget needs, such as increased funds for prisons and children’s services. Denning said it will be up to the House and Senate to put together a budget and school finance plan.

Ward, the House Democratic leader, said he seldom agrees with Brownback, but that he did agree with three aspects of the governor’s State of the State speech — legislators must work together, dream boldly and make school finance a top priority.

The Kansas Supreme Court has ruled the school finance system inadequate and inequitable and given the Legislature until April 30 to provide a remedy.

Earlier in the conference, Education Commissioner Watson commended Brownback’s school funding plan and for calling for education goals that are aligned with the State Board of Education’s vision.

Watson said he understands if education advocates don’t trust Brownback, who for years has been critical of school spending. But, he said, the comments and plans outlined by Brownback are in sync with where Kansas public education should be headed.

The governor’s position he said, should be taken “as a positive sign.”
Brownback’s budget doesn’t outline how his K-12 proposal will be funded in the out years and he has called for no tax increase.

Brownback has also proposed goals of a 95 percent high school graduation rate, a post-secondary effective rate of 75 percent and 50 schools participating in the Kansans Can redesign model.

He also said he wants the average teacher salary in Kansas to be the highest in the region. Watson said Kansas’ current teacher salary ranking of 42nd “is unacceptable.”

Earlier, state Rep. Blaine Finch, R-Ottawa, who chaired the interim committee on school finance, spoke to the group.

Finch urged education leaders to get involved in the conversation about proposals to change the Kansas Constitution on school finance.

Finch, an attorney, said there should be a healthy tension between the branches of government, but currently there seems to be a crisis between the Legislature and judicial branch over school funding every decade or so.

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