Gov. Laura Kelly said she didn't understand resistance to increasing special education funding during an interview with Kansas Reflector on education budget provisions. (Sherman Smith/Kansas Reflector)
TOPEKA — Gov. Laura Kelly struck down a K-12 budget bill provision that would have decreased funding to more than one-third of Kansas public schools, calling the provision potentially “devastating” for rural communities.
“This provision pulls the rug out from underneath rural school districts at the 11th hour. If this provision were enacted, it would bring dangerous and devastating consequences for our rural districts,” Kelly said. “I will not allow this to happen to our rural schools, which are essential to the fabric of Kansas.”
Kelly announced her signing of Senate Bill 113 Thursday, vetoing several items in the K-12 education package, which overall will provide school funding for the next three years.
The budget passed the House with a 83-37 vote and the Senate by 23-16 after lengthy debate and criticism that several provisions, such as the school finance formula, were slipped into the budget with no oversight or public discussion at the very end of the 2023 legislative session.
The original form of Senate Bill 113 would have limited districts to using current or previous year enrollment numbers to determine state aid, a change from current policy which allows public school districts to use student enrollment numbers from the previous two years to calculate foundational state aid.
While the change would boost funding in districts with growing student populations, districts experiencing year after year of falling enrollment would have unexpected budget losses. The revision would reduce funding for an estimated 100 school districts, affecting mainly rural communities.
Kelly said changing the formula could also put the state at risk of not meeting constitutionally mandated school funding standards, which were determined after years of legal battles. Lawmakers passed a plan five years ago to gradually increase funding, until finally reaching a constitutional amount in the current school year. This is the first time Kansas schools have been fully funded since 2008.
“The current school finance formula was approved by the Kansas Supreme Court in the Gannon case,” Kelly said in her veto explanation. “Changes to this formula run the risk of noncompliance and jeopardize our track record of constitutionally funding schools.”
Kelly also vetoed two provisions that changed education allocations because of the revised finance formula.
In a joint statement, Senate President Ty Masterson and House Speaker Dan Hawkins said they approved of the budget in general, but they believe Kelly’s vetoes were unconstitutional.
“The administration exceeded their authority under the Kansas Constitution, which limits line-item vetoes to items of appropriations,” the statement read. “We strongly encourage the Attorney General to immediately review this unconstitutional overreach.”
Kelly pushed back on this statement in an interview with the Reflector following the release of the budget.
“This is clearly an appropriation, and there are also times during the debate on this bill where the Legislature themselves declared this an appropriations bill. So we feel very comfortable that my authority to line item exists on appropriations issues,” Kelly said.
Other budget provisions
Kelly also spoke against the special education funding allocation provided in the bill. SB 113 doesn’t include new funding for special education, instead increasing state funding for special education by about $7.5 million, an inflation adjustment from current spending levels.
The state is currently about $160 million short of special education funding required by state law, according to estimates from the Kansas Association of School Boards. The state is supposed to provide 92% of the costs of special education, but the Legislature hasn’t fulfilled this requirement since 2011.
“I don’t really understand what the hangup was,” Kelly told the Reflector. “I mean, in every other way when we’re talking about programs for kids with disabilities or special needs, the Legislature throws money at it. Look what they do with the waiver programs for the IDD (Intellectual and Developmental Disabilities). Why when it comes to providing funding for the same kids in the school system, they balk? I don’t get it.”
The budget bill also expands a private school tax credit and allows private school students to participate in public school sports and activities.
The tax credit, originally billed as a way to serve low-income Kansas students, currently allows organizations and taxpayers to write off 70% of scholarships they provide to private schools, with a maximum allowable credit of $500,000 per year.
The bill increases student eligibility for the program to 250% of the federal poverty level, raises the tax credit write-off to 75% and also allows unaccredited private schools to be eligible for the program, as long as the school is “working toward accreditation.” Another provision allows the state first right of refusal over closed school buildings.
While Kelly criticized the lack of transparency for these provisions, she said her goal was to work toward the best overall outcome.
“I just felt this was in the best interests of everybody concerned that we veto that one item that would have been very detrimental to a lot of our school districts, but then to allow the rest of the budget to go through,” Kelly said.
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