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School funding battle in Kansas reignites after report shows massive challenges ahead

TOPEKA, Kan. — The debate over education funding in Kansas is heating up again, after a study shows it could take over $2 billion to fix the underfunded system, and bring schools up to the standards set by the state Board of Education.

Authors of a new study presented their findings the Senate Select Committee on Education Finance on Monday.

One legislator described as sticker shock after learning how much it could cost to fix education in Kansas.

“Obviously it is a bit overwhelming for everyone not only in the magnitude of it but also the scope that they have come up with,” said Senator Barbara Bollier.

The report is based on a 95 percent graduation rate, which now hovers around 86 percent. According to the study led by Lori Taylor, a Texas A&M researcher, it could cost roughly $470 million a year to keep things they way they are.

$1.8 billion for 90 percent of students to perform at grade level, but not be prepared for college, and $2.1 billion for 60 percent of students to be prepared for college.

“Its a sobering number but for me it was not a huge shock to see it because I have long advocated for an investment in our schools,” said Rep. Melissa Rooker.

In 2010, a group of school districts sued the state, saying the Kansas legislature was underfunding public schools, violating the state constitution. The school districts won.

The state was required to increase the education budget by $600 million a year to be in compliance with the state constitution, but an economic recession caused the state to default on that ruling. When things improved, the state continued to ignore the funding requirement.

“The equivalent of contempt of court proceedings if you or I had reneged on a settlement with the court in some financial case,” said Rooker.

The $2.1 billion has to come from somewhere, which could be program cuts, higher taxes, or a combination of the two.

“And I know that there is concern in my senate district.” Said Sen. Molly Baumgardner, Chair of the Senate Select Committee on Education Financing. “There is concern, will my taxes going to go up again? And quite frankly, we really do need to let the dust settle on this.”

David Smith with the KCK school district is a loud voice among those who say there is not enough money for schools, but the study is not all bad. Authors say they have never seen a state as efficient with the money they do get as the educators in Kansas.

“This is a long term investment,” said Smith. “We didn’t get to where we are in a couple of years. We will not fix it in a couple of years. But what they said and I think what many of us believe is sustained commitment to education is what this state needs to continue to grow and thrive.”

This is just the beginning of what is sure to become a new debate on school funding.