Kansas GOP ties new school funds to ‘choice,’ other policies
TOPEKA, Kan. (AP) — State funds for Kansas’ public schools have been held up as Republican lawmakers push for policies critics say would punish educators for court rulings that forced the GOP-controlled Legislature to boost its spending.
A legislative proposal ties $6.4 billion in spending to policies pushed by conservative Republicans, including an “open enrollment” proposal to allow parents to send their children to any public school with enough space. Another provision would restrict surveys of students’ families, their beliefs, mental health, or drug or alcohol abuse. A third would expand a state-funded college scholarship program to students outside Kansas.
Republicans drafted the measure before lawmakers began their annual spring break earlier this month, to settle differences between the House and Senate. When legislators reconvene April 25, they must decide whether to add more money for special education programs and whether to link dollars to policy changes.
Conservatives argue they are trying to make schools more accountable for how they spend state money. They’ve been linking money to policy since 2014, when the Kansas Supreme Court issued the first of seven rulings in an education funding lawsuit filed against the state by four school districts.
“It’s our responsibility to make sure that student outcomes are improving,” said state Rep. Kristey Williams, an Augusta Republican who chairs a House committee on education spending. “It’s important to always pair funding with an obligation on the schools’ part to provide back the accountability that they need to.”
But Democratic lawmakers, teachers and other educators see the bill combining funding and policy as imposing unnecessary new tasks that hinder teaching. Marcus Baltzell, spokesman for the state’s largest teachers union, sees policy proposals as the “heavy toll” that Republicans want schools to pay for winning the funding lawsuit.
Kansas is set to spend 57% more on direct aid to its public schools during the 2021-22 school year than it did in 2011-2012, according to budget documents. With the pending measure, that figure would increase again by more than 6% for the 2022-23 school year, to $5.3 billion, including funding for educators’ pensions.
“If these folks are actually interested in fully funding public schools, they should just do that,” Baltzell said. “They shouldn’t have to attach special interest policy in order for kids to have all the resources that they deserve.”
Even with the additional funds, some districts expect to have budget shortfalls because state funding is tied to student numbers, and those numbers declined during the pandemic.
Also, the measure before lawmakers wouldn’t hit the goal set in state law for funding special education programs. The State Department of Education is asking Democratic Gov. Laura Kelly to support another $155 million for special education — 30% above the $520 million lawmakers had planned to spend for 2022-23.
“Because special education services are mandated by federal and state statute, school districts must make up this shortfall by reducing funding in their operating budgets for other necessary educational programs,” Deputy Education Commissioner Craig Neuenswander said in a letter to Kelly’s budget director.
It’s not clear yet how much policy will remain tied to funding. While Williams argues that negotiators struck a deal and should keep the package together, Senate Education Chair Molly Baumgardner, a Louisburg Republican, suggested that GOP leaders may separate some proposals from the money.
Senators would vote first on the package, and Baumgardner said she’s heard from senators in both parties who who don’t want to open up the college scholarship program to people outside Kansas, given that scholarships are capped at $10 million a year.
Williams said the goal is to attract people to Kansas, but Baumgardner said, “That is a real sticking point for the Senate.”
Meanwhile, Republicans argue that it’s necessary to restrict surveys in which students are asked about their personal beliefs and lives, so the surveys don’t take time away from classroom lessons and parents know beforehand what their children will be asked. Educators say such surveys provide valuable data and can help schools find at-risk children.
The open enrollment proposal split Republicans enough that one version barely passed the House last month. The proposal would require districts to take students after determining how much space they have.
Williams and other supporters argue that the proposal would increase choices for parents. However, Mark Tallman, a lobbyist for the Kansas Association of School Boards, said that with decisions left to local officials, most districts take outside students and, “That system has worked well.”
Other critics said open enrollment could cause headaches for quickly growing school districts. And Rep. Jarrod Ousley, a Merriam Democrat, said better-off families in urban and suburban areas would benefit most, because parents would have to provide their own transportation.
“It creates the opportunity for — for lack of a better term — white flight,” Ousley said.
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