- Associated Press - Thursday, March 17, 2016

TOPEKA, Kan. (AP) - Republican legislators in Kansas are divided over the redistribution of education funds and are upset with the state Supreme Court for threatening to shut down public schools if lawmakers don’t help poor districts, two committee meetings showed Thursday.

The GOP-dominated Senate Ways and Means Committee approved a bill that would reallocate $38 million of the more than $4 billion in the aid for the state’s 286 school districts for 2016-17. The plan from Chairman Ty Masterson would boost state aid for 100 districts but would cut it for 186, and the committee’s voice vote sent the measure to the Senate for debate, which may happen next week.

In the House, strong criticism from Republicans on the Appropriations Committee forced Chairman Ron Ryckman Jr. to drop his milder version of the plan, which would have reduced aid for 79 districts to help others. Several GOP members said they want lawmakers to take a different approach, suggesting Masterson’s plan faces trouble in the House if it passes the Senate.

Masterson, an Andover Republican, and Ryckman, an Olathe Republican, acknowledged that they didn’t much like their own proposals. But they said lawmakers must respond to a state Supreme Court ruling last month that threatens to close schools statewide in July unless lawmakers fix problems with how education funds are distributed.

“With a gun to the head, I think this a proper response,” Masterson said.

Republicans also are trying to address the court order without a big increase in spending. The state has struggled to balance its budget since GOP lawmakers slashed personal income taxes in 2012 and 2013 at GOP Gov. Sam Brownback’s urging in an effort to stimulate the economy.

Republicans control the Legislature, and if they push for a big increase in school spending, they must consider reversing income tax cuts many of them supported - something Brownback has ruled out.

The Supreme Court ruled that a school funding law enacted last year shorted poor districts on their fair share of state aid. The 2015 law repealed an old per-pupil funding formula that many educators liked but that Brownback and his allies saw as flawed and unstable.

The court said legislators have many options for fixing the current law’s problems, but it specifically mentioned reinstating two parts of the per-pupil formula.

Both Masterson and Ryckman took that approach in their plans. Ryckman’s measure would have increased overall spending on schools by about $21 million to soften the blows as money was redistributed. But the increase didn’t make the shifts more palatable, particularly to lawmakers from Johnson County, where the Olathe, Blue Valley and Shawnee Mission districts still would lose a combined $4.6 million.

“I’ll flat out say it - the court was wrong,” said Rep. Amanda Grosserode, a Lenexa Republican. “And they’re wrong because they don’t understand how we fund our schools.”

The court ruled in a lawsuit pursued by the Dodge City, Hutchison, Wichita and Kansas City, Kansas, districts since 2010. Their attorneys have asked the court to clarify its ruling and force the state to increase spending $163 million in making the distribution of aid fairer.

Some legislators, particularly Democrats, question whether the justices will accept a redistribution of existing dollars.

The court said in its decision that the Legislature must resolve fairness issues without “running afoul” of its duty under the state constitution to provide adequate funding. The justices have yet to decide whether Kansas is spending enough money overall, but a lower court declared last year that it must boost its annual aid by at least $548 million.

“I think we just need to grow up and do our job, which is to adequately fund our schools,” said Sen. Laura Kelly of Topeka, the ranking Democrat on the Senate committee. “I think we’re making a very cynical response to the court.”

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Online:

Kansas Legislature: http://www.kslegislature.org

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Follow John Hanna on Twitter at https://twitter.com/apjdhanna

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