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Kansas increases school aid in response to court order

Teachers crowded into a wing of the Kansas State House Saturday to lobby for a bill increasing funding for public schools.
Teachers crowded into a wing of the Kansas State House Saturday to lobby for a bill increasing funding for public schools.(John Hanna/Associated Press)

TOPEKA, Kan. — Kansas legislators have approved spending more on public schools in hopes of meeting a court mandate after rancorous debate highlighted deep divisions among top Republicans.

Governor Jeff Colyer, a Republican, endorsed a bill that would phase in a $534 million increase in education funding over five years, siding with GOP leaders in the House who largely drafted it.

Attorney General Derek Schmidt, another Republican, had joined Colyer in pressuring legislators to act.

But the plan that passed did not feel like a compromise to the Senate’s GOP leaders, who favored phasing in a $274 million increase over five years. They argued the bigger plan, approved early Sunday and sent to Colyer, would force lawmakers to raise taxes within two years.

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‘‘We know — absolutely know — if we’re going to pay this bill, we’re going to have to increase taxes,’’ said Senate President Susan Wagle, a conservative Republican.

The Kansas vote comes amid tumult in many so-called red states over school funding. An ongoing teacher strike in Oklahoma is part of a movement that has included action by educators in West Virginia, Kentucky, and Arizona.

Oklahoma teachers on Monday are expected to enter a second week of demonstrations as they push lawmakers to increase education funding. Leaders of the largest teachers union said protests at the Capitol would continue unless lawmakers repeal a capital gains tax exemption and the governor vetoes a repeal of a proposed lodging tax.

Dozens of Kansas teachers, many wearing red shirts, converged on the State House and camped out for hours before the Senate approved the bill, 21 to 19, early Sunday. The House had passed it Saturday, 63 to 56.

The Kansas Supreme Court declared in October that the state’s current funding of more than $4 billion a year isn’t enough for lawmakers to fulfill their duty under the Kansas Constitution to finance a suitable education for every child. The court gave Schmidt until April 30 to report on how legislators responded.

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Colyer and the Republican-controlled Legislature worried that a frustrated high court would take the unprecedented step of preventing the state from distributing dollars through a flawed education funding system, effectively closing schools statewide.

Many Democrats had argued that the plan would not satisfy the Supreme Court. Most Democrats in the House voted against it.

But all of the Senate’s nine Democrats voted for it. The state’s largest teachers union put aside its misgivings that the plan was too small and had members pack the Senate gallery and hallways outside the chamber.

Colyer argued in a statement Saturday that the new plan could be sustained without increasing taxes. Supporters believe annual growth in tax revenues will cover the new spending.