Kansas education standards debate exposes tensions

06/16/2013 12:23 PM

06/16/2013 12:25 PM

An intense debate in Kansas over adopting multistate academic standards for public schools has exposed longstanding tensions between the Legislature and the State Board of Education over control of what happens in classrooms.

Small-government, tea party-aligned Republican legislators want to block the use in Kansas of Common Core standards for math and reading, an initiative of governors' and education commissioners' associations. The state board adopted the standards as Kansas' own in 2010.

Critics of the Common Core guidelines also opposed science standards drafted by Kansas, 25 other states and the National Research Council. The board adopted them last week.

The elected state board, dominated by a coalition of moderate Republicans and Democrats, contends that adopting multistate standards will improve teaching and better prepare students for a global economy. Republican legislative critics believe putting such standards into effect will be costly and worry that Kansas is ceding some of its control over its schools.

But this year's tensions also have deeper roots in the Kansas Constitution. It gives the state board authority to set education policy independent of the Legislature but still leaves the power of the purse with lawmakers, making at least occasional clashes likely, if not inevitable.

“It's a tension that has existed for some time,” said Senate Minority Leader Anthony Hensley, a Topeka Democrat, a teacher whose 37 years in the Legislature make him its longest-serving member ever.

Opposition to multistate standards fueled unsuccessful attempts during this year's legislative session to block spending on their implementation and, in the final hours, to set up a special legislative oversight committee. The debate flared again during last week's state board meeting with three hours of public comments.

Some critics fear both the Common Core and science guidelines as the equivalent of national educational standards, extending the federal government's influence over schools.

Money also is an issue because a legislative audit in December said the Common Core standards could cost Kansas between $34 million and $63 million over the next five years, as schools purchase new books and materials and teachers are retrained. GOP legislative critics believe costs could be much higher.

“A pause makes sense,” House Education Committee Chairwoman Kasha Kelley, a conservative Arkansas City Republican, told the board last week. “A hard look makes sense.”

The state board shows no signs of backing off. And in March, amid the Legislature's debate, board members drafted a letter reminding lawmakers and Gov. Sam Brownback of the board's constitutional power over educational policy.

Supporters of multistate standards contend potential costs have been overstated by critics, particularly when school districts do ongoing teacher training and regularly replace books and other materials. They contend interest in multistate standards is driven by states themselves and business leaders concerned about U.S. economic competitiveness.

But some current arguments are part of older threads.

In raising concerns about the potential costs of following multistate standards, GOP legislators are echoing regular criticism of the board over the past 25 years for proposing large increases in state funding on public schools.

Meanwhile, board members continue to describe themselves as the greater experts on education as a result of their focus and year-round meetings.

“They don't seem to understand the work we put into every decision,” board member Sally Cauble, a Republican from Independence, said of legislators.

Kansas voters created the 10-member state board in 1966 by approving a constitutional amendment that also gave the new board “general supervision” over public schools and other “educational interests.”

In 1973, the Kansas Supreme Court rejected a legal challenge by a local school board to a state board regulation and declared that the state board had “self-executing” authority to supervise schools, meaning it didn't have to rely on the Legislature to spell out its authority. The court said lawmakers can pass laws to “facilitate or assist” the board but cannot thwart its work.

“There is room enough for every person, every group, every public agency interested in the education of our young people to have a significant and meaningful role in this vital area of national concern,” the court's majority opinion said.

However, legislators and state board members sometimes have jostled each other in trying to influence educational policy, as this year's debate over academic standards shows.

A few legislators have described the board as an awkward “fourth branch” of state government. Lawmakers put constitutional amendments on the ballot in 1974, 1986 and 1990 to strip the board of its independent power, but voters rejected each proposition.

Cauble said conflicts between the board and legislators ultimately must be resolved by the same voters who've put her fellow GOP moderates and Democrats in charge of the board but elected the conservative Republican legislators who've criticized the board's work.

“It's not good for the kids of Kansas if we adults get into a power struggle,” she said.

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