Government & Politics

Kansas lawmakers pass school finance bill merging funding equity with education reforms

Kansas lawmakers late Sunday narrowly passed a school finance bill that ties reforms championed by conservatives to fixing a spending gap between rich and poor schools.

The House and Senate passed a bill that spends $126 million to bridge wealth-based disparities in the school funding formula, strips teachers of due process rights and promotes school choice. The bill now goes to the governor to sign.

The education bill was a response to a state Supreme Court ruling that funding disparities between rich and poor schools violated the state constitution. The court ordered the state to fix the gap by July or risk having judges fashion a solution.

“The school finance bill passed by the Legislature today fully complies with and, indeed, exceeds the requirements of the recent Supreme Court ruling for funding schools,” Republican Gov. Sam Brownback said in a statement after the vote.

Republican leaders needed all the votes they could muster. The bill passed by a bare minimum 63 votes in the House and just one more vote than the 21 minimum in the Senate.

State Rep. Jack Thimesch could have made the difference. The Cunningham Republican returned to the Capitol for the education vote following the death of his wife. Legislative leaders said they had four or five other votes they could have switched if they had been needed.

The bill is potentially a big victory for conservative Republicans because it gives them some educational reforms they have sought while putting more money into schools.

The reforms would:

• Foster school choice by allowing corporations to receive tax credits for contributions to scholarship funds so children with special needs or who come from low-income households could attend private school.

• Make it easier to fire teachers by eliminating their due-process rights.

• Relax teacher licensing when hiring instructors with professional experience in areas including math, science, finance and technical education.

As the final bill was negotiated, lawmakers jettisoned an idea to block funding for Common Core academic standards.

They also shed a plan that would have provided property tax relief for parents who home-school their children or send them to private schools. Lawmakers questioned whether the property tax break was constitutional and whether they knew its real cost.

Urged on by conservative special interests such as Americans for Prosperity, Republican leaders pressed hard to eliminate due process rights for teachers.

They say the proposal is intended to ensure that school administrators are free from regulations that would keep them from firing substandard teachers.

“If you talk to administrators, they want this,” said Sen. Julia Lynn, an Olathe Republican. “They want really good teachers to thrive. They don’t want to be in a position to protect those teachers who are under-performing.”

State law had required administrators to document conduct and provide a hearing for teachers they want to fire after three years on the job.

The bill means terminated teachers would no longer be able to request a hearing.

Hundreds of teachers in red T-shirts filled the Capitol rotunda over the weekend and urged lawmakers to back off the due process proposal. They filled the House and Senate galleries at the statehouse to make their position known to the Legislature.

Supporters of due process said it protects teachers from retribution if they speak against school policies or are wrongly singled out by disgruntled parents who are upset about grades or classroom curriculum.

Due process “is a safety issue, it’s not to keep poor teachers in jobs,” said Blue Valley West High School teacher Danna Ahnemann, who visited the Capitol Saturday afternoon.

“It is meant to give a teacher the ability to do what that teacher believes is the best for a student and not be worried about having repercussions because of a grade or getting crosswise with one person,” she said.

The legislation was of keen interest in Johnson County because it gives school districts more power to collect property taxes to fund their programs. Johnson County schools and parents have long wanted the ability to raise more money for education.

The bill raises the limit on the amount of money school districts can raise locally. School districts are now capped at 31 percent of the state funding they receive. The bill raises that limit to 33 percent.

Johnson County’s three largest districts — Olathe, Shawnee Mission and Blue Valley — could raise the cap on their own for a year. Next year, they would be required to hold a mail-in election to keep the cap at the new level.

Superintendents from Olathe, Blue Valley and Shawnee Mission visited with area lawmakers last week. They told them that getting the ability to raise that cap was very important.

The bill also tweaks the school formula to let districts raise even more local money without going beyond the current limits.

Overall, the bill appears to funnel about $14 million into Johnson County schools and about $9.7 million into the Kansas City, Kan., district, some of which will go to property tax relief and not directly into the classroom.

There were no fresh numbers available Sunday night showing how much the districts would gain by raising the cap on their local option budgets.

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