Hold the applause on Kansas school finance bill

04/21/2014 5:33 PM

04/22/2014 6:20 PM

Kansas Gov. Sam Brownback has signed the controversial (to put it mildly) education bill that attempts to correct funding inequities but also includes a serious threat to teachers’ job security and an opportunity for donors to write off most of the cost of sending certain students to private schools.

A few quick thoughts, based on reports from the signing ceremony, which took place in the governor’s office and was attended by top legislative leaders.

• Brownback downplayed the part of the bill that gets rid of automatic due process hearings for teachers. That will now be a decision for local school boards, he said. “There’s a lot of local control in this bill,” he said.

There seems to be some question about how much leeway school boards will have. But apart from that, the idea of the governor — or any Kansas Republican leader — suddenly becoming a proponent of local control is quite startling.

Over the past three years, legislators have enthusiastically stripped decision-making from local governments and school boards. The latest move was to pass a bill telling local governments they couldn’t regulate firearms and that, in fact, any local gun laws were null and void. It will be very interesting to see whether Brownback signs it.

• The governor praised the part of the bill that offers a big tax credit for corporate donors who contribute to scholarship funds so that certain low-income students can attend private schools, including religious schools.

That corporate tax break — a 70 cent deduction for each dollar donated — “will help low-income families achieve their dreams,” Brownback said.

It will also mean less money for public schools. And let’s hope the voucher-in-disguise experiment works better in Kansas than it has in Florida, where a searing 2011

exposé

by the Miami New Times found millions of dollars in tax money has benefited unregulated private schools that in some cases had no curriculum, teaching credentials or safety standards. Fraud is common and students have graduated only to find their so-called educations are worthless; colleges won’t accept their credits.

• There was a lot of backslapping among Brownback and lawmakers about the Legislature’s feat in passing an education financing bill within a month of the state Supreme Court order declaring the funding gaps to be unconstitutional.

But cracks began appearing almost as soon as the ink on the bill was dry. School districts around the state are now saying that offsetting funding cuts in the bill, most notably for at-risk students, are all but wiping out any benefits. The big question now is whether the court will even accept the bill as correcting the unconstitutional inequities.

“Hopefully this is going to put this litigation to bed,” House Speaker Ray Merrick said at Brownback’s bill-signing ceremony.

I wouldn’t place any bets on that. Maybe they should have taken more time.

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