Legislators say they have deal on school funding

FILE - Kansas Gov. Sam Brownback speaks to state House Republicans before they debate a school funding plan, Friday, April 4, 2014, at the Statehouse in Topeka. (AP Photo/John Hanna)
FILE - Kansas Gov. Sam Brownback speaks to state House Republicans before they debate a school funding plan, Friday, April 4, 2014, at the Statehouse in Topeka. (AP Photo/John Hanna)

TOPEKA, Kan. (AP) — House and Senate negotiators reached an agreement Saturday on a Kansas school funding measure, setting the stage for an evening vote that would hinge on legislators accepting higher local property taxes and changes in education policy, including ending teacher tenure.

The deal would increase state spending by at least $129 million in an effort to satisfy a Kansas Supreme Court decision last month directing lawmakers to increasing aid to poor school districts.

Negotiators added several policy provisions sought by the Senate, including eliminating teacher tenure, a tax credit scholarship program and property tax reduction for private school parents. In exchange for higher overall state spending, the House accepted changes in the math used for allowing districts to raise additional local property taxes.

Senate Ways and Means Committee Chairman Ty Masterson said the policy provisions were important to the Senate, though the plan is pricier than his liking.

“I think this is a solid compromise, though it spends way more money than I’m comfortable with,” said Masterson, an Andover Republican.

The challenge may be in the House, which passed its version Friday with 91 votes from a mix of Republicans and Democrats. The teacher tenure change could cost the House Democratic support but may generate more votes from conservative Republicans, who wanted to see more policy changes to go along with any new spending.

House Appropriations Committee Chairman Gene Suellentrop, who has been on the job less than a week after former chairman Rep. Marc Rhoades resigned over differences with GOP leaders, said changes in provisions for allowing increased local property taxes could be problematic, as well. The issue is important to Johnson County legislators who represent wealthier districts that get little state aid.

Raising the cap on property taxes gives those districts more money to spend on the classroom, including teacher salaries.

“We’re going to keep going until we find 63 votes in the House and 21 in the Senate,” said Suellentrop, a Wichita Republican.

Getting 63 votes in the House and 21 in the Senate would send the measure to Gov. Sam Brownback to sign.

Several dozen teachers converged on the Statehouse to lobby legislators on the tenure issue. About 400 teachers were in Topeka for a delegate assembly of the Kansas National Education Association and decided to adjourn their meeting to voice their concerns.

Bob Thesman, a counselor from the Blue Valley school district in Johnson County, said the tenure issue concerned teachers because of the potential impact on job security and the ability to advocate for their students.

“If you don’t have the due process rights, you could be released without any reason being given,” said Thesman, who is also a state director for NEA.

Supporters of the change argue that it gives school boards and administrators more flexibility in removing underperforming teachers in effort to improve education quality.

The compromise includes additional policies that include tax credits for school choice.

Masterson backed away from a measure that would have stopped implementation of the Common Core Standards in its tracks. The provision has been sought in recent years by conservative legislators who fear the new guidelines cede too much authority over curriculum to federal authorities.

Both the House and Senate plans are responses to a Kansas Supreme Court order last month that directed lawmakers to increase aid to poor school districts by July 1. The court ruled in a lawsuit filed by parents and the Dodge City, Hutchinson, Kansas City and Wichita school districts.

A three-judge district court panel that heard the case in 2012 will meet later this year to conduct further review of overall funding levels to determine whether the more than $3 billion in state support is enough to adequately educate students.

Masterson also offered a technical change to the teacher tenure policy. He said when it passed the Senate it was written to include all of higher education, as well. The change limits the policy to K-12 teachers.

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