Kansas education funding hike, school choice eligibility expansion signed into law

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TOPEKA — Gov. Laura Kelly on Monday commended a new bipartisan education law increasing education spending that fully funds Kansas education for the third year in a row while also expanding eligibility for private school scholarships.

House Bill 2134, the product of negotiations between House and Senate lawmakers and the governor’s office, funds the state’s 286 local public school districts at an annual rate of $5.2 billion for the budget year beginning July 1. It also places restrictions on public schools’ use of remote instruction and directs local school boards to use federal COVID-19 aid to give district employees a $500 bonus, among a bevy of policy changes.

While Kelly was not high on some provisions of the legislation — such as the private school expansion — she praised joint effort across the political spectrum for working to provide students and teachers needed resources.

“Ensuring kids have access to a quality education not only helps them succeed. It helps our businesses succeed and promotes economic development by providing employers with a highly educated, skilled workforce,” Kelly said. 

The governor was joined by education advocates and a bipartisan group of lawmakers to sign legislation guaranteeing funding through 2023. The Senate voted 35-4, and the House later voted 107-9 to adopt the 5% budget hike.

She also signed House Bill 2313, a two-year extension of the statewide 20-mill property tax levy that raises about $750 million annually for public schools.

The measure was the last bill to pass before the Legislature adjourned earlier this month. It also provides property tax reimbursement for businesses impacted by shutdowns or restrictions due to disaster emergency declarations.

Kelly, who campaigned as “the education governor,” signaled this measure would further reverse years of insufficient school funding and tax policy under former Gov. Sam Brownback. 

“When I took office, the State of Kansas had failed to fully fund our public schools for nearly a decade,” Kelly said. “It’s more important than ever to support our teachers and our schools and to give them the tools they need to ensure Kansas kids thrive.”

However, the governor was less enthusiastic about the expansion of a tax credit program for low-income student scholarships touted by Kansas Republican legislators. The legislation would broaden eligibility to include students who qualify for free or reduced-price meals.

The program is currently open to low-income students eligible for free meals and attending one of the 100 lowest-performing public schools. The total tax credits would remain capped at $10 million a year.

This provision of the law was among points of emphasis for work done in the House K-12 Education Budget Committee, chaired by Rep. Kristey Williams, an Augusta Republican. She said the scholarship expansion was a step toward raising educational competency for more Kansans.

“Education isn’t just about money. It’s about outcomes. It isn’t about most kids. It’s about every kid,” Williams said in a joint statement with House Speaker Ron Ryckman, R-Olathe. “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.”

In addition, the new laws earmark pandemic relief funding to pay for $5 million in school safety grants and $3.9 million to improve school mental health programs. They also require an annual report on foster-care students’ educational outcomes.

Education advocates applauded the singing for meeting the needs laid out in the Gannon school finance plan to restore equitable funding to the public school system. They said this would continue to allow schools to replace positions that had been cut and add new staff to support “student learning, mental health and college and career readiness.”

“Together these actions by the governor and Legislature will help school leaders improve the success and lives of each and every student and the future of our state,” said a release from the Kansas Association of School Boards co-signed by more than half a dozen other state education advocacy groups. “School leaders are committed to the next steps.”

Kansas Reflector is part of States Newsroom, a network of news outlets supported by grants and a coalition of donors as a 501c(3) public charity. Kansas Reflector maintains editorial independence. Contact Editor Sherman Smith for questions: info@kansasreflector.com. Follow Kansas Reflector on Facebook and Twitter.

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