Dear , 

  

Twenty-three years.   That's how long it has been since the current school finance formula was adopted by the Kansas Legislature in 1992.  It's also the length of time the school finance formula has been debated each year by the Kansas Legislature.

 

On Friday, the Kansas House, by a step of 64-57, took the first major step towards ending that long saga, sending the CLASS ACT to the Senate, where we will likely act on it Monday.   The CLASS ACT repeals the formula and replaces it with a system of block grants.  

 

The reason education funding has been such a contentious topic is the complexity of the formula, largely due to numerous weighting factors always being tweaked and adjusted.  If the outcome would not get enough votes, the factors are tweaked and adjusted again.

 

It's not sustainable.  It's not fair, particularly to school districts like Shawnee Mission.  It pits rural school districts against suburban school districts.  It incentivizes administrators to play with their numbers so they can get a favorable outcome from the weightings.  

 

It also means the focus of our debates in Topeka is almost always about how much money can be distributed into the system, rather than how the money is being spent to achieve the best education possible for our children.

 

That is why in 2015 the Kansas Legislature is repealing it, once and for all, so we can move to a new, modern formula that funds our schools at an appropriate level but truly respects local control by shifting most of the decisions about the allocation of said funds to where it belongs - local school boards.

 

Of course, creating a new formula will be a lengthy process, with many people offering ideas on how it should take shape.   The close vote on Friday indicates how the votes will likely be on a new system.    It will take time with many voices being heard in the process.  

 

However, as long as the old formula was in place, there was no realistic chance a new formula would ever be created.  We have to get rid of the old before proceeding with the new, particularly when the old was as destructive as the existing school finance formula.

 

That is why we need an interim system - block grants - so schools can be funded while that new formula is crafted.   Block grants are a sensible and fair way of allocating funding to schools, as it allows districts maximum flexibility at a high level of funding.  

 

It was good to see both the Shawnee Mission and Blue Valley School Districts announced their support for the block grant system while a new formula is being crafted.  I appreciate the strong, sensible leadership willing to stand up to the status quo. 

 

I recognize some groups, who have spent years and years defending the formula as it is now, will strongly resist these new efforts to modernize our education system, but it's important to filter their wild claims with the facts, including:

 

  • The CLASS ACT provides school districts flexibility in operational funds to meet the unique needs of their individual communities and its student population. It is predictable sustainable funding for the next three years as all parties work to develop a new, transparent school funding plan.
  • K-12 education funding equates for over 49 percent of the state's general fund. With the block grant funding bill in place, budgeting committees would have increased certainty in stabilizing the entire state budget for the next two years.
  • The CLASS ACT establishes an atmosphere for legislators and educators to draft a functional formula, which provides stable and suitable funding, but eliminates automatic and significant increases driven by a formula that most taxpayers do not understand.
  • The CLASS ACT will not delay or cut any current funding for new building plans. Currently, the total capital outlay reserves available to school districts total $432M and supplemental state aid totals $59 million.               

I understand the lack of adequate information from the media makes it hard to fully follow what is being accomplished.  This is a big moment in our state's history - and the significance of it should not be lost.  Moments like this are often controversial.  Johnson County has been imprisoned by this unfair formula for 23 years and now we are breaking loose.  It should come as no surprise that the NEA and the media are highly resistant. If anything, this is a clear indication that the Legislature must now show courage and act to get this done.

 

Potential Court Roadblock

 

On Friday, we received some potential discouraging information with the three-judge panel considering a lawsuit against the state declared they might prevent any new formula from taking effect while they're adjudicating the case.   

 

From a press release from the Kansas Association of School Boards:

 

The order from the three-judge panel considering the lawsuit set a May 7 hearing in the case and stated: "Further, be advised that upon motion of the Plaintiffs or the State or upon the Court's own motion, with or without notice, the Court may agree or elect to impose such temporary orders to protect the status quo and to assure the availability of relief, if any, that might be accorded should the Court deem relief warranted."
 
To ensure enforcement of any such orders, the judicial panel directed the Plaintiffs to join additional defendants, in both their official capacity and individually.
 
Those to be added are the Kansas Director of Accounts and Reports, the Kansas Revisor of Statutes, Kansas Secretary of State and Kansas State Treasurer.
  

Other Votes


This past week, the Kansas Senate voted on a few other pieces of legislation, as we move through March on our way towards first adjournment.  I'm sorry to say I came down with a nasty intestinal flu bug and missed two days early in the week.  Here are the votes, some of which I voted for in committee but was absent for the floor vote:


SB 59

SB 59 clarifies the jurisdiction of district magistrate judges by adding jurisdiction over wildlife and park violations; reorganizing jurisdiction in uncontested divorces; rewording current law for petitions or motions to terminate parental rights under current state code, and; adding a list of certain action over which the judges would not have jurisdiction without consent.


The Senate approved the bill on a Final Action vote of 40-0.


SB 105

The Senate also considered a change to the Uniform Interstate Family Support Act (UIFSA), SB 105. UIFSA was enacted by Congress in 1996 to create uniformity between state's laws when collecting child support. Previous to its passage, two or more states might issue conflicting support orders for the same support payer and children. This made it hard to know how much support was owed, who the support was owed to and which state would be responsible for collecting and distributing the support.


In 2014, a federal law was passed requiring all states to enact the 2008 UIFSA guidelines by the end of 2015. Failure to do so would result in the loss of certain federal dollars to the IV_D child support fund and Temporary Assistance for Needy Families (TANF) block grant federal funding.


SB 105 establishes Kansas' compliance with UIFSA guidelines. This will provide universal, uniform rules for the enforcement of family support orders.


SB 105 passed on a Final Action vote on Wednesday, March 11 by 40-0.


SB 216

SB 216 brought the most controversial discussion Wednesday. The measure would enact the Kansas School Security Act, which would require local school districts to adopt and implement a safety and security policy, each school year, which would address the protection of students, teachers and other school employees while on school grounds, which include school vehicles and school-sponsored activities.


The bill also requires the safety and security policy be distributed to parents and employees upon completion. It would require the school safety officer or designee to meet annually with emergency medical responders or first responders and local law enforcement to discuss the plan in case of an emergency.


Opponents of the bill claimed schools are already using reporting methods that protect students and that certain provisions in the bill would be too hard for them to change their current reporting standards, but SB 216 will make a uniform plan and ensure districts that don't already have a process in place will work with local law enforcement and first responders to develop one.


The Senate approved SB 216 on a Final Action vote of 31-9.  I voted yes.


HB 2053

This week, the Senate corrected a Kansas Supreme Court decision that overturned the length of sentence of convicted felons with out-of-state criminal histories. The case stemmed from the arrest of Jimmy Murdock in a 1996 robbery. Murdock pled guilty and was sentenced. Murdock's previous criminal history included 1984 and 1990 robbery convictions, which were used to calculate his sentence for the 1996 crime. Because of the nature of the previous crimes, it was classified as a person crime in Kansas. The prison sentence was set at 20 years.


Murdock appealed and the Kansas Supreme Court issued a ruling on May 2, 2014. The ruling deals with how Kansas courts impose sentence lengths based on past criminal history. When judges consider past crimes committed outside of the state, they use the sentencing grid to match out-of-state crimes to similar in-state crimes. They are placed in two categories, person - which carries a longer sentence - and nonperson - which typically carries a shorter sentence. The Court found that since the Sentencing Grid was passed in 1993, all crimes before that must be considered nonperson crimes for the purpose of sentencing. The effect in the Murdock case was to allow a robber with two prior aggravated robbery convictions in Illinois, who was originally sentenced to more than 20 years in prison, to have his sentence reduced because the two prior offenses could only be categorized as nonperson felonies.


The Court did rule that in-state crimes committed before 1993 could still be categorized as person crimes. However, the net effect of the Court's ruling, according to the attorney general, could still affect between 250 and 300 dangerous felons currently in state prison.


HB 2053 was introduced by the Special Committee on Judiciary. The committee was tasked with recommending a response to the ruling to ensure that stiff prison sentences are kept in place for violent criminals. The legislation would amend state statutes governing the calculation of criminal history to specify that prior felony convictions committed before July 1, 1993 shall be categorized as a person or nonperson crime using a comparable Kansas offense. The committee believes HB 2053 will address all future crimes that rely on a criminal history before 1993 for sentencing.


The Senate passed HB 2053 on Wednesday March 11, 2015 on a vote of 40-0.  I voted yes.


Appointments

Wednesday the Senate approved 3 appointees issued by Governor Brownback. The most notable appointment was Kathryn Gardner to the Kansas Court of Appeals. After extensive review and discussion by the Senate Committee on Judiciary, the Senate approved her nomination on a vote of 31-9.   I voted yes.


Gardner's background includes working for Senior US District Judge Sam Crow as a law clerk, the assistant attorney general, and a research attorney for a state Court of Appeals judge. She also owned a private law practice for 12 years. She will fill the vacant seat left by Justice Caleb Stegall who was nominated by Governor Brownback and confirmed by the senate last year to the state Supreme Court.


The Senate also approved, unanimously, the reappointments of Jeffrey Leiker and Samantha Angell to the State Board of Indigent Defense Services.

 

Committee Hearings


 

Convention of States

On Thursday, the Federal and State Affairs Committee held a hearing on House Concurrent Resolution 163 (HCR 163). HCR 163 is a proposed resolution calling for a constitutional convention of the states.  Former Senator Tom Coburn (R-Oklahoma) testified in favor stating, "But, today, we have an out-of-control federal government that diminishes the relevance of the Constitution daily." He also stated that the "founders established the "convention of the states" mechanism to ensure citizens would be equipped to resist federal encroachment upon states' rights and individual liberty." Amongst the matters that would likely be discussed would be for the establishment of a Federal Balanced Budget Amendment. The last time a constitutional convention was called was in 1787 to write the U.S. Constitution.  If passed Kansas would join Florida, Georgia, and Alaska in approving measures seeking a constitutional convention. Thirty-three more states would need to join in order for a convention to be called. The measure currently has 14 sponsors in the Senate. 


 

Public Funded Lobbying

On Monday and Tuesday, the Local Government Committee held informational hearings on the influence of public funded lobbying. The informational hearings spanned a two day session to educate committee members on such practices. Tuesday's meeting focused on a Texas house bill (HB 2157) that prohibits political subdivisions that impose taxes: cities, counties, and school districts from spending public funds directly or indirectly to influence the legislation. Members of the Texas Legislature provided information on how their bill will stop the practice of using taxpayer money to influence the legislation to pass policies that may contradict their own beliefs. Though it is a common practice, there is little documentation noting the amount of public resources expended by government entities to lobby for more taxpayer dollars. The committee will continue its study next week.


 

Real world cost of education - SB 193

The Senate Ways and Means Committee held a hearing on Senate Bill 193 (SB 193). The legislation would require public universities to publish a degree prospectus for all programs they offer. The information would include: a description of the degree, the average amount of years it would take to obtain the degree; aggregate cost and cost per year that it would take to get the degree; average time it takes people to obtain a job after graduation; the average salary, and the amount of time it would take to pay off student loans. SB 193 also allows Universities to provide a $100 incentive so graduates would provide the information to them for a more accurate degree prospectus.  Proponents state that families making the important financial decisions of whether to invest in a higher education degree deserve a more transparent report on the real world costs. Additionally, they argue that empowering students with this information will help them to make a more informed decision when choosing a field of study and career path. The measure is now awaiting action by the full Senate.


 

Below is an example of a degree prospectus that would be attached to receive a Bachelor Degree in Accounting:


 


 

 

For more information on the above bills visit: http://www.kslegislature.org/li/b2015_16/measures/bills/


 

Kansas Wage Growth

The Kansas Department of Labor released the chart below that shows an increase of 4.1% in average weekly earnings. With the growing economy, Kansans are earning more money in their weekly paycheck. Once again, these are encouraging numbers for the working individuals and families of our state.  They also point to stronger economic growth to come.


 

 


 

 

 

 

What's Next

 

After a vote early this week on the CLASS ACT, we will continue to work through the committee process to advance legislation to the floor, so it can be passed by the upcoming deadlines at the end of the month.

 

I appreciate your comments and emails on various topics, and will do my best to respond to those.   

 

 

In honor of your liberty,


 
Mary Pilcher-Cook



Mary Pilcher Cook
913-396-9306
mary@pilchercook.com

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