Kansas education policy reform in upcoming legislative session likely to mirror 2022 bills

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TOPEKA — The 2023 legislative session in Kansas is expected to generate familiar debates on financing of public schools and vouchers for private schools, transgender student participation in sports and creation of a parental bill of rights touching on class curriculum and library offerings.

Lobbyists with the Kansas Association of School Boards also anticipated legislation would surface to broaden vaccination exemptions for students, encourage school employees to carry firearms and address the longstanding shortfall in state aid to special education.

Leah Fliter and Scott Rothschild, who monitor legislation for KASB on behalf of the 286 school boards statewide, said the annual session would again feature Democratic Gov. Laura Kelly and the Republican-dominated House and Senate. The outcome will directly influence nearly 500,000 students and more than 35,000 teachers in the state.

“Well, I think is obviously going to be challenging as it was last year,” Fliter said. “I do think, though, given the fact that the voters seem to be comfortable with a kind of a divided government — Republican Legislature, Democratic governor — it makes me wonder if there might be some opportunities for the Democrats to pull some Republicans over into some votes that might be favorable for public education.”

The House and Senate maintained two-thirds GOP majorities capable of forming a large enough coalition to overturn vetoes by Kelly, who didn’t hesitate to use her veto power during the first term. It is possible the House will be slightly more conservative, despite addition of one Democrat in the 2022 elections. The Senate didn’t alter its complexion because members won’t be on the ballot until 2024.

The Legislature could end up embracing education policy advocated by Attorney General Derek Schmidt, who lost to Kelly in November, on transgender athletes, the parental bill of rights and vaccination exemptions.

“We’re hearing … they’re going to come out of the gate swinging,” Fliter said on the Kansas Reflector podcast. “There’s going to be all kinds of stuff. So, I in some ways, I think they’re doubling down.”

Leah Fliter
Leah Fliter says private school vouchers would hollow out the public school system while fortunate kids “go to the land of milk and honey.” (Sherman Smith/Kansas Reflector)

Vouchers on agenda

Fliter said advocates of private school funding would again strive to funnel public tax dollars to private schools through a system of tax credits and education savings accounts. She said KASB would urge lawmakers to avoid reforms that result in hurting public school districts by moving students to private schools not obligated to accept every student regardless of income, academic standing or disability.

“It’s basically hollowing out the public school systems so that eventually, the only kids who are left in public school are the kids who, who do poorly, who have a lot of challenges at home. And, meanwhile, the more fortunate kids are able to go to the land of milk and honey, and continue to excel,” she said.

Rothschild said a bill would again emerge — Kelly vetoed previous attempts to advance this culture-war policy — to require transgender students to participate in athletics based on gender at birth. He said KASB opposed this legislation because the Kansas State High School Activities Association and local school boards were better equipped than the 165 members of the Kansas Legislature to handle these issues.

In 2022, Kelly vetoed and the Legislature failed to override legislation outlining a dozen rights of parents with children enrolled in K-12 public schools. The package affirms parents have the authority to direct religious and moral upbringing of their children. It also required teachers to disclose classroom materials to parents in advance of use and encouraged parents to challenge library books they considered offensive.

“I think we’re gonna see another run at restricting things that are in libraries, you know, making teachers post what they’re teaching,” Fliter said.

The Legislature will consider how to deal with an inflation adjustment to state funding of K-12 education, a provision of the settlement of recent school finance litigation. The Kansas Supreme Court retained jurisdiction of the case in anticipation of the legislative branch attempting to back out of the settlement.

Under the current agreement embedded in state law, the Legislature must adjust taxpayer spending on public education based on a three-year rolling average of inflation. The rate climbed to 8% in 2022, but the dollar figure would be moderated by 2% or 3% rates the previous two years.

Scott Rothschild
Scott Rothschild says fully funding special education needs in public schools is a “no-brainer.” (Sherman Smith/Kansas Reflector)

The inflation adjustment

Another financial issue will be consideration of demands for the Legislature to fully reimburse local school districts for 92% of the cost incurred for special education services. The state hasn’t hit that mark in a decade, which leaves districts to self-fund a larger share of costs. Statewide, meeting that threshold would cost the state about $160 million annually.

“It would seem like that would be a no-brainer to fund that,” Rothschild said. “As far as consequences for not funding it? I mean, we haven’t seen any yet. But I think there are political consequences.”

He said legislators might attempt to amend state law to require existing state aid to public schools to be shifted to special education.

Meanwhile, the representative of the Kansas Policy Institute think tank told legislators there was no shortfall in “school funding for special education.” KPI CEO Dave Trabert said students may not be receiving the quality of education deserved, but it wasn’t “for a lack of funding.”

Rothschild said shortage of educators in public schools was a significant concern. Compensation and work conditions could be improved, he said, but the political assault on teachers was driving people away from the profession.

“I think we just have to lift teachers up,” he said. “There’s so much negativity brought by certain special interest groups against public schools. If this session proceeds into a standoff over funding or, you know, things that may or may hurt teachers, I think legislators are going to find out Kansans like their public schools.”

Kansas Reflector is part of States Newsroom, a network of news bureaus supported by grants and a coalition of donors as a 501c(3) public charity. Kansas Reflector maintains editorial independence. Contact Editor Sherman Smith for questions: info@kansasreflector.com. Follow Kansas Reflector on Facebook and Twitter.

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