Federal aid for Kansas colleges and K-12 schools could be at risk without changes

Andrew Bahl
Topeka Capital-Journal
The state's current funding levels for higher education could put in jeopardy millions in COVID-19 relief dollars for such public colleges as Kansas State University in Manhattan and K-12 schools across Kansas.

Kansas needs to boost funding for public higher education or else risk jeopardizing federal COVID-19 aid to public schools and universities, officials warned in a memo to legislators Monday.

The warning from Budget Director Adam Proffitt comes as legislators wade through a heated debate over how to fund K-12 education.

Republican legislators acknowledge the risk that exists to federal relief for both public K-12 education and the state’s colleges and universities.

“I think it is going to be a problem,” said Rep. Troy Waymaster, R-Bunker Hill, chairman of the House Appropriations Committee.

Billions at stake as legislators search for solutions

State universities are in line to get over $161 million from the American Rescue Plan Act alone and school districts are set to receive $1.3 billion over the three relief packages approved since March 2020.

The two most recent federal relief bills contain so-called "maintenance of effort" requirements that in effect force states to continue funding education at a similar level as they have in the past.

The state budget as written wouldn't meet that standard for higher education funding.

Proffitt suggested legislators add $109 million over each of the next two fiscal years in an effort to meet federal guidelines.

Republican budget writers noted they were confident the issue would be settled one way or another, but it is unclear if more funding will be the course of action they choose.

Sen. Rick Billinger, R-Goodland, said it would be possible to request a waiver from the U.S. Department of Education, an option Proffitt also notes would be on the table.

“While we believe that USDE is prepared to err on the side of granting flexibility to states based on their individual circumstances, we will have the potential for recoupment looming over our federal funds availability if we do not meet our MOE,” Proffitt wrote to legislators.

Sen. Rick Billinger, R-Goodland, said lawmakers are exploring their options after warnings the current state budget could jeopardize federal COVID-19 relief for public schools and colleges.

But Billinger noted lawmakers could set aside money as an emergency fund in case the waiver request was denied.

“I'm not sure if it is etched in stone or not," he said.

Kelly’s budget initially cut $37 million from the state’s public colleges and universities, although roughly $25 million of that has been restored by lawmakers.

The federal relief dollars can only be used in certain ways, with 50% of the money going to financial aid grants for students. The other half of the dollars can be used for other items, most notably recouping lost revenue.

But while legislators acknowledged the reality the issue posed, there was frustration that federal guidelines weren't more flexible.

"The federal government is tone deaf for what it is doing for the states — it is unfortunate," Sen. Molly Baumgartner, R-Louisburg, told reporters.

Debate over education funding continues

The kerfuffle comes as legislators seek a path forward on funding the state’s public K-12 schools, which was separated from the larger budget after a failed attempt to pass a slate of controversial school choice measures.

Conservatives argued it was a way to ensure accountability for schools as they receive the full $5.8 billion proposed in Kelly's budget request for the next fiscal year. The amount is part of a Kansas Supreme Court-approved spending blueprint agreed to in 2019 after years of education funding lawsuits.

But the education mega-bill failed in the Kansas Senate earlier this month, sending legislators back to the drawing board with time dwindling.

Negotiations appear under way to rectify that, although the exact form a compromise plan will take remains unclear.

Members have insisted that some policy strings be attached, although they will likely shy away from the most controversial school choice provisions in the original bill.

That include a focus on growing a program that offers private businesses tax credits for donations to bankroll private school scholarships of up to $8,000. The provision passed the Senate earlier this session and has more support than other, more aggressive choice proposals.

"There are going to be a lot of components in there that are positive, positive," Baumgartner said. "It depends if we can get solid margins on votes ... But school districts want to know their budgets so they can move forward."