TOPEKA, Kan. (AP) — State funding for Kansas public schools has been held up as Republican lawmakers pushed for political critics who would punish educators for court rulings that forced the GOP-controlled legislature to increase spending.
A proposed law ties $6.4 billion in spending to measures being pushed by conservative Republicans, including an “open enrollment” proposal that would allow parents to send their children to any public school with enough space. Another provision would limit surveys of students’ families, beliefs, mental health, or drug or alcohol abuse. A third would expand a federally funded college scholarship program to students outside of Kansas.
Republicans drafted the measure before lawmakers began their annual spring break earlier this month to settle differences between the House and Senate. When lawmakers meet on April 25, they must decide whether to add more money for special education programs and whether to tie dollars to policy changes.
Conservatives argue they are trying to make schools more accountable for how they spend state money. They’ve been tying money to politics since 2014, when the Kansas Supreme Court issued the first of seven rulings in an education funding lawsuit filed by four school districts against the state.
“It is our responsibility to ensure that student outcomes improve,” said Rep. Kristey Williams, an Augusta Republican who chairs a House committee on education spending. “It’s important to always couple funding with schools’ commitment to return the required accountability.”
But Democratic lawmakers, teachers and other educators see the bill, which combines funding and policy, as unnecessary new responsibilities that hinder instruction. Marcus Baltzell, spokesman for the state’s largest teachers’ union, said the policy proposals represent the “heavy toll” Republicans want schools to pay for winning the funding process.
According to budget records, Kansas will spend 57% more on direct aid to its public schools in the 2021-22 school year than it did in 2011-2012. With the pending action, that number would increase again by more than 6% to $5.3 billion for the 2022-23 school year, including funding for educators’ pensions.
“If these people are actually interested in fully funding public schools, they should just do it,” Baltzell said. “They shouldn’t have to attach a special interest policy so kids have all the resources they deserve.”
Despite the additional funding, some counties expect budget deficits because state funding is tied to student numbers, and those numbers have declined during the pandemic.
Also, the measure before the legislature would not achieve the goal set in state law for funding special education programs. The state Department of Education is asking Democratic Gov. Laura Kelly to support an additional $155 million for special education — 30% more than the $520 million lawmakers had planned for 2022-23.
“As special education services are mandated by federal and state laws, school districts must make up for this deficiency by cutting funds in their operating budgets for other necessary educational programs,” Assistant Education Commissioner Craig Neuenswander said in a letter to Kelly’s budget director.
It’s not yet clear how much policy will remain tied to funding. While Williams argues that negotiators reached an agreement and should keep the package together, Senate Education Chair Molly Baumgardner, a Republican from Louisburg, suggested that GOP leaders could separate some proposals from money.
Senators would vote on the package first, and Baumgardner said she’s heard from senators from both parties who don’t want to open the college scholarship program to people outside of Kansas because scholarships are capped at $10 million a year.
Williams said the goal is to draw people to Kansas, but Baumgardner said, “That’s a real sticking point for the Senate.”
Meanwhile, Republicans argue that there is a need to limit polls that ask students about their personal beliefs and lives so the polls don’t take time out of class and parents know in advance what their children will be asked. Educators say such surveys provide valuable data and can help schools find at-risk children.
The open registration proposal has divided Republicans so widely that a version barely passed the House last month. The proposal would require districts to admit students after determining how much space they have.
Williams and other proponents argue that the proposal would expand choices for parents. However, Mark Tallman, a lobbyist for the Kansas Association of School Boards, said most districts accept outside students because decisions are left up to local officials, and, “This system has worked well.”
Other critics said open enrollment could cause headaches for fast-growing school districts. And MP Jarrod Ousley, a Merriam Democrat, said better-off families in urban and suburban areas would benefit most, as parents would have to arrange their own transport.
“It creates the opportunity for – for lack of a better term – white flight,” Ousley said.
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