A special legislative committee on school funding recommended Tuesday that the state of Kansas pay for all students to take the ACT exam, and it wants state lawmakers to have authority over some local school bond issues.
Those were two of the proposals in a wide-ranging report approved by the Special Committee on K-12 Student Success. The report will be used by Kansas lawmakers to write a new school finance formula, which allocates billions of dollars of state aid to school districts.
The Kansas Legislature in 2015 put in place a block grant funding plan for schools for two years until a new formula could be written. Block grants to school districts replaced a per-pupil financing formula.
The committee, dominated by conservative Republicans, approved the report over a host of objections by Democratic committee members.
Hot button issues in the report included the bond issue proposal and a recommendation that potentially downplays poverty as a measure used in funding at-risk students. Many of the proposals focused on controlling costs.
Rep. Ed Trimmer, a Winfield Democrat, called parts of the report “contradictory and irresponsible.” Senate Minority Leader Anthony Hensley, a Topeka Democrat, offered a list of amendments, which were mostly voted down, and issued a minority report.
To hold down state expenses on school bond issues for building construction and renovation, the report recommended a new law to limit what projects may be funded with state aid for capital improvements. The state helps poorer districts with bond payments, and those costs have been rising.
Hensley wanted to do away with a proposal in the report that the Legislature create a committee to oversee and approve any school district bond issues before they are placed on the ballot.
“We’re saying we don’t value local control over our local school districts,” Hensley said. “This flies in the face of the meaning of local control.”
After the objection, the wording was changed so the proposed committee would have the authority to review bond issue proposals when a district would receive state aid to help with costs.
Sen. Steve Abrams, an Arkansas City Republican, said that if school districts want state help, they should be willing to accept oversight by the Legislature.
Democrats objected to the proposal that the state pay for all students to take the ACT exam. Not all students are college bound, and the proposal would be costly, they said.
The report said the state’s current assessment testing should be re-evaluated and revised, noting “inconsistent standards of proficiency.”
Abrams said that because the state assessment is altered periodically, it’s difficult to track trends in student achievement. The ACT would provide better tracking, he said.
“I believe we should give that opportunity to all students,” Abrams said.
But Trimmer said relying on the ACT would encourage “teaching to the test,” something the report criticizes. And he objected to the report’s proposal for a new state exam developed by “an objective third party with no connection to the state Department of Education or the federal Department of Education.”
The report advocated more controls on funds for at-risk students. Identifying at-risk students has been linked to participation in the free- and reduced-price lunch program.
“At-risk funding should be based directly upon a student’s ability to learn, rather than the poverty level of the student,” the report said, adding that poverty measures used to determine at-risk funding should be based on information provided by the state revenue and labor departments.
Although there are many factors in determining the needs of at-risk students, Hensley said, poverty is a key one.
“I think that (recommendation) denies the research that shows there is a direct correlation between poverty and school achievement,” he said.
David Smith, spokesman for the Kansas City, Kan., school district, said there was little in the report to “improve our ability to educate all students well. Resources are the biggest challenge we face, and this doesn’t do anything to address that.”
The report calls on other legislative committees to take up several issues, including teacher pay, at-risk funding and a cost-benefit analysis of accepting federal education funds.
A rewrite of a draft presented two weeks ago, the report included many of the conservative themes of the earlier draft. After the committee meeting Tuesday, Hensley said he objected to the tenor of the report.
“The intention underneath this is to find out how we can spend less and direct more money into private education,” he said.
At a House Education Committee hearing Tuesday afternoon, the controversial issue of merit pay for teachers drew staunch backers and detractors. Gov. Sam Brownback has urged lawmakers to consider the concept of merit pay in its school financing discussion.
“Merit pay is not a new concept. It has worked in private industry for quite some time,” said Brandon Smith, Brownback’s policy director. “Creating evaluating systems that fairly assess individual teachers may be difficult, but it’s not impossible.”
Mark Tallman with the Kansas Association of School Boards told lawmakers that any plan for merit pay should be instituted by local school boards and not mandated by the Legislature. One obstacle is that there is “no clear consensus on how performance pay should be determined,” he said.
Mark Desetti with the Kansas National Education Association said flatly that the organization opposes merit pay plans.
Merit pay systems imposed on teachers by state legislatures have failed, Desetti said. Among other problems, he said, merit pay plans disrupt the collaborative nature of teaching.