As Kansas governor emphasizes funding for special education, lawmakers focus on private schools

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Gov. Laura Kelly has been campaigning for fully funding special education statewide

Post updated at 7:27 p.m. Friday, March 3:

TOPEKA — Kansas government officials clashed this week over education, with Gov. Laura Kelly promoting the full funding of special education and other politicians emphasizing private schools as a way to educate Kansas youths.

“I believe that they built schools before they built churches,” Kelly said during a Thursday Zoom meeting with education officials on special education funding. “If you’re from Kansas, you know what that means. That’s an incredibly high priority that Kansans put on education from the get-go. They even put it in the Constitution.” 

Kelly has done a series of events to promote increased funding, as Kansas special education has been underfunded for years. Under Kansas law, the state has to provide 92% of the extra costs of special education, but the Legislature hasn’t met this requirement since 2011. The current level of funding sits around 71% statewide, according to the Kansas Association of School Boards. Districts have had to divert funds from general education programs to pay for special education costs. 

Kelly’s proposed budget would add $72.4 million for special education every year for the next five years to meet the statutory requirement. While the federal government is supposed to provide up to 40% of the funding as stipulated by legislation passed in 1990, only about 13% has been provided.

Kelly said she was fully aware that the federal government needed to do more, and was working with other governors to address the issue with Washington lawmakers. 

“I’ll continue to work with my colleagues to get that fully funded mechanism back in place out of Washington, DC but in the meantime, we still have a responsibility here,” Kelly said. 

She urged concerned Kansans to get parents and legislators involved with their local special education programs and school systems. Funding public education in general hasn’t gained much traction in the Legislature, with several lawmakers expressing concern about public school content and transparency.

During a Thursday House K-12 Education Budget Committee hearing, Chair Kristey Williams, an Augusta Republican, gave a hearing on an education bill that will be gutted and reworked Monday, rendering testimony moot.

“Monday, we will work the empty shell of Senate Bill 83,” Williams said. “So that is Monday. The content, for those that asked, I told them, ‘Don’t even worry about the content,’ is what we’re having the hearing on today.”

The original version of the bill would have expanded eligibility for a private school scholarship tax credit program. Some people giving testimony said there were transparency issues with the gutting, given that they couldn’t accurately testify when they didn’t know the final content of the bill.

Kansas State Board of Education member Ann Mah spoke in support of public education and mentioned the lack of information. 

“With the lack of transparency, we’re not really sure what you’re going to work, but I thought we might just remind you of a couple of things, and point out a couple of things and hope that what I talked about actually hits what you’re going to vote on,” Mah said during the hearing. 

The committee has been criticized for a lack of transparency before, including when lawmakers rolled parental rights legislation into an unrelated bill without giving the public an opportunity to voice their concerns about the legislation.

Critics have said hasty hearings and the education bills worked by the committee, along with parental rights rhetoric, are meant to promote distrust of school districts and public education.

Williams and Vice Chair Rep. Brenda Landwehr, a Wichita Republican, pushed back on Mah’s transparency concerns. Landwehr emphasized the legality of the process. 

“We’re just having a hearing on this bill because that’s the process so that then we have a shell,” Landwehr said. “There will not be anything put in that bill that really hasn’t been discussed in this committee. So it’ll be bills previously heard. And it’s legal. It’s been declared legal. And we’re fine to do that, so being accused of not being transparent is disingenuous.”

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: Follow Kansas Reflector on Facebook and Twitter.

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