Legislators advance sweeping education package despite bipartisan concerns

Andrew Bahl
Topeka Capital-Journal
Students take part in a spelling bee in Manhattan Catholic Schools. Private schools have been at the center of a debate over expanding school choice programs, something critics believe will hinder public education in Kansas.

Legislators are forging ahead with a wide-reaching package to remake education policy in Kansas, including a major expansion of the state's school choice offerings and provisions restricting remote learning.

The legislation, which critics have dubbed a "Frankenstein" bill, has instead been framed by proponents as a needed response to achievement gaps laid bare by the COVID-19 pandemic and a way of better serving students and families.

While the bill was amended to soften certain key provisions, public school advocates are still skeptical. A bipartisan group of legislators in the House appeared to agree —  18 Republicans joined all Democrats in opposing the legislation, which squeaked through on a 65-58 vote.

"There is nobody in my district that would support it," Rep. Boyd Orr, R-Fowler, said after the vote.

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Members clash on merits of school choice

The most controversial element of the bill includes the creation of a controversial new school choice effort, as well as increasing eligibility for a tax credit scholarship program currently in existence.

This would include an expansion of a state program that offers private businesses a tax credit for donations to bankroll private school scholarships of up to $8,000, rather than directly funding a student's tuition. 

A separate, more aggressive provision would allow families to access the base per-pupil aid normally given to a public school district to support their child.

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Those funds can be used for private school tuition, as well as textbooks, education-related therapies and tutoring and expenses related to homeschooling. Students who are deemed at-risk by their current school district would be eligible.

Proponents argued the COVID-19 pandemic had increased the sense of urgency on the matter, saying families disappointed with how their district performed during the pandemic should have another option.

"It shouldn’t be just because I have the ability to pay that I can decide there is a better place for my child to get educated," said Rep. Brenda Landwehr, R-Wichita.

But Rep. Valdinnia Winn, D-Kansas City, Kan., argued legislators were ignoring a host of other education issues, such as out-of-date teacher education standards.

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Winn maintained private schools aren't required to meet the same standards for assessing their students and reporting data to the state, something proponents of the bill dispute.

"There are a lot of issues that could help explain low achievement," she said. "We haven’t talked about them. I haven’t given up on public schools. I am waiting here to reform public education."

Rep. Fred Patton, R-Topeka, himself a member of the Seaman USD 345 school board, noted he remained skeptical of any voucher-type program.

"I'm just not a big fan of taking public education dollars and giving them to private schools," he said after the vote.

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Crackdown on remote learning loosened

Conservative legislators have been frustrated that many school districts continued remote learning into the spring, something which prompted a push to require those holdouts return to in-person instruction.

Members have argued the remote learning experience has hindered the progress of pupils across the state and believe it must be avoided it going forward.

Rep. Kristey Williams, R-Augusta, has advocated for a package of education items, including provisions to restrict the abilities of school districts to move to remote learning.

Under the legislation, in-person learning can still be halted briefly in the event of a natural disaster, like a tornado or severe storm.

But provisions in the bill would slash per-pupil funding for students learning remotely over a prolonged period of time and it would exclude virtual learning from counting towards the number of hours students must be in school each year.

Legislators took a step to loosen those restrictions Tuesday, however, approving an amendment to allow the state Board of Education to issue a waiver, allowing a district to get the full amount of per-pupil funding — even if they go remote.

"This provides a little more flexibility to our school districts," said Rep. Kristey Williams, R-Augusta, while pointing out that districts can return to class over the summer or other breaks in an effort to make up for lost time.

Use of federal funds raises concerns

The bill includes education funding for the next three fiscal years at levels requested by Gov. Laura Kelly, something which has cheered public school advocates.

There was concern after the Senate appeared interested in using federal COVID-19 relief dollars to replace some school funding, something that could run afoul of a court-mandated education spending blueprint.

But the bill directs KSDE to spend education-specific federal aid on a range of programs, including equipment to boost school safety and a pilot program for mental health intervention.

This has raised some concern among members, who want to ensure support will continue in the future once federal support dries up.

Other members are worried the federal government will deem those expenses not to be allowable, although language added to the bill clarifies that the funds need only be spent if Washington, D.C. signs off on the move.

"Those millions haven’t been sifted out clearly," Winn said. "So for us to direct, recommend — it is a little premature. It is hopeful but there are federal dollars suggested that we don’t know whether it is legal or not where we can spend them as such."

The bill now advances to the Kansas Senate, where similar school choice bills passed earlier this session. They are almost certain to meet the veto pen of Gov. Laura Kelly, however, and legislators would lack the votes to override such an action.