Four terrible bills that have Kansas schools playing defense

The Editorial Board

The one-room schoolhouse, like this one near Strong City, Kan., is long gone, but the size of rural schools and districts is a hot issue for the state Legislature.
The one-room schoolhouse, like this one near Strong City, Kan., is long gone, but the size of rural schools and districts is a hot issue for the state Legislature. The Associated Press

Legislative interference in Kansas public education is becoming ever more threatening to communities, administrators and teachers.

This week alone, educators will be pressed to ward off four destructive measures that are up for hearings in the state Legislature.

The worst is a forced consolidation measure that would cut the number of school districts in Kansas by more than half, from 286 to 132.

House Bill 2504, sponsored by Lansing Republican Rep. John Bradford, is heavy-handed state government at its worst. The measure will be reviewed by a legislative committee on Wednesday.

It decrees that counties with 10,000 or fewer school-aged children must form one countywide school district. In other counties, districts would be expected to realign so that each has at least 1,500 students.

An analysis by the Kansas Association of School Boards finds that more than four out of five school districts in the state would be affected by Bradford’s legislation. Johnson and Wyandotte counties are among the few that would experience no changes; all of their districts exceed the 1,500-student threshold.

The intent is to save money. Bradford estimates savings of $170 million over 10 years, though how he came up with that calculation is unclear. The bill caps the number of supervisory and administrative employees who could be hired by each reorganized district, and it provides instructions for the sale of surplus property and buildings, with revenues directed into the state’s general fund.

But the bill provides no guidance as to how dozens of reorganized districts are to go about choosing their leaders, calming anxious families or consoling communities whose identities, long tied to local school districts, have been fractured.

Bradford’s legislation doesn’t specify that underused schools must close down and class sizes must grow. But those would likely be some of the effects.

And who will govern these new districts? The bill doesn’t say.

Bradford told the Topeka Capital-Journal that school boards wouldn’t necessarily have to consolidate. But the idea of more than one board giving orders to a superintendent and guiding a district is preposterous.

The bill would put school district employees out of work in rural areas with few comparable job prospects. Those workers would have to cut back on living expenses. Some would relocate.

If the Legislature wanted to proactively work on a formula for wrecking the economies of rural communities and demoralizing residents, House Bill 2504 would be the place to start. The sooner lawmakers figure that out, the better.

Other measures that should be nipped in the bud:

▪ House Bill 2486 would over time make it harder for school districts to receive state help in paying off bond debt.

State aid, which since 1993 has been determined by a formula, would now be a decision made by a panel consisting mostly of legislators. And only construction projects that are deemed to be for “instructional purposes” would be eligible for state aid, although the bill fails to define what those are.

Proponents of the bill are correct when they note that the state’s share of assisting with bond debt has grown rapidly in recent years, as communities have supported their school systems by approving local bond issues. Some realignment might be in order.

But the old formula — already made moot by last year’s move to block grant funding — calculated state assistance based on the wealth of school districts to reduce inequities. The new proposal doesn’t appear to do that.

▪ House Bill 2457 would expand the tax credit program the Legislature passed two years ago, stretching the income level for which families could qualify for scholarship funds to send their children to private or religious schools.

Corporations receive tax credits up to 70 percent for donating to the scholarship pools.

About 150 students are currently participating in the programs, according to a recent state report.

Kansas is hardly in a position to forfeit more tax money so that students can attend private schools while the state withholds money from its public schools.

▪ It is dismaying to see the return of Senate Bill 56, a measure that would make it easier to prosecute teachers who expose students to materials that are determined to fall under a vague description of “harmful to minors.”

This measure, which fortunately stalled in the House after being passed by the Senate last year, is unnecessary and chilling. Teachers could face criminal investigations for sharing acclaimed literature that someone deems offensive or for teaching human sexuality or biology.

Far too much time was spent on this appalling legislation in 2015. It should be put to rest at a hearing on Tuesday.