House GOP unveils school funding proposal

3/20/2014

TOPEKA (AP) — Republicans in the Kansas House unveiled a plan Thursday that would fully fund aid to the state's poor school districts but tie the money to school "choice" initiatives from GOP conservatives that previously have foundered.

TOPEKA (AP) — Republicans in the Kansas House unveiled a plan Thursday that would fully fund aid to the state's poor school districts but tie the money to school "choice" initiatives from GOP conservatives that previously have foundered.

The plan was drafted as a 91-page bill introduced Thursday evening by the Republican-dominated House Appropriations Committee, and GOP leaders said the committee would have hearings next week. It would boost aid to poor school districts by $129 million during the fiscal year that begins July 1, the amount the state Department of Education has estimated is necessary to reverse past cuts in that aid.

The Kansas Supreme Court ruled earlier this month that the recession-fueled cuts in aid to poor districts created unfair and unconstitutional gaps in funding between them and wealthier districts and ordered lawmakers to fix the problems by July.

The House GOP plan links the money to multiple policy changes. They include proposals designed to help parents who want to send their children to private schools and measures for encouraging the creation of new, state-funded charter schools, which have more freedom than typical public schools.

House Speaker Ray Merrick, a Stilwell Republican, said that if lawmakers are going to commit to spending so much new money, "We've got to get some policy stuff."

But the proposals in the bill designed to expand choices for parents in where they send their children to school have failed to pass the House or clear committee.

Those measures include tax credits for contributors to education scholarship funds that could help children attend private schools, a new income tax deduction for contributions for charter schools and a less restrictive law for setting up new charter schools.

"It looks like it's some sort of retribution," said Rep. Jim Ward, a Wichita Democrat. "You have to do this, or we won't give you money."

The state's relatively restrictive charter school law has been a sore point for some GOP conservatives, and the Department of Education says only 11 are operating across the state. Charter schools must be approved by both the local school board and the State Board of Education.

The House GOP plan would set up an independent board that could approve new charter schools, along with local school boards, public or private colleges and the Kansas Board of Regents, which oversees the higher education system. There would be no limit on the number of charter schools — an idea in model legislation from the conservative American Legislative Exchange Council.

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