Archive for Friday, April 4, 2014

Kansas House advances ‘clean’ schools bill as session winds down

April 4, 2014

— Late Thursday, the House Appropriations Committee approved a $129 million school finance plan that authors of the bill said would require approximately $51 million in new funds, presumably from the state's reserves.

The full House was scheduled to vote on the measure Friday.

Committee leaders changed the bill significantly from one that was debated earlier in the week. The panel restored nearly all the cuts in various funding categories, such as virtual education and the cost of transporting students to school.

"A wise decision has been made to basically hold our schools harmless," said Appropriations Vice Chairman Marvin Kleeb, R-Overland Park.

The new House bill appeared to have the backing of Gov. Sam Brownback. That's because the district-by-district impact estimates came directly from Jon Hummell, the governor's budget director, rather than the Legislative Research Department or the Kansas State Department of Education.

According to those estimates, the Lawrence school district would see a net increase of $1.1 million for its general fund, mainly due to a small increase in base state aid that lawmakers approved last year.

The bill also allows districts to raise more money through local property taxes to supplement their general fund, which would yield another $1 million for Lawrence, if the school board opts to take full advantage of that.

Some committee members opposed the changes. "We are spending a significant amount of taxpayer dollars," said state Rep. Virgil Peck, R-Tyro.

Unlike previous school finance proposals, this one lured some Democrats.

"There were significant changes to areas that were really important to people," said state Rep. Barbara Ballard, D-Lawrence, a member of the Appropriations Committee. "I think it also addresses the guidance the court gave us in terms of how do we work with equity," she said.

More Senate action

But it was a different story in the Senate, where conservatives tacked on numerous amendments to their spending plan, which would result in a net cut of $1.1 million to the Lawrence district's general fund.

Early in the evening, the Senate overwhelmingly approved an amendment by Sen. Forrest Knox, R-Altoona, to prohibit spending any money to implement the Common Core standards in reading and math, or to pay for administering statewide tests that are aligned to those standards.

Later, Senate President Susan Wagle, R-Wichita, pushed through an amendment to authorize tax credits to corporations that donate money to fund scholarships for low-income students and students with disabilities to attend private schools

That measure has been referred to as a kind of "back-door voucher" because, although corporations initially fund the scholarships, they are partially reimbursed by the public in the form of tax credits equal to 70 percent of their donations.

The bill as it came out of committee already included a property tax credit available to real estate owners who choose to home-school their children or send them to private schools. Qualifying taxpayers could receive a $1,000 credit against their tax bill for the first child home-schooled or enrolled in private school, and $2,500 if they have more than one child in such a program.

One of the most heated discussions of the night centered on an amendment by Sen. Tom Arpke, R-Salina, that would repeal tenure rights for teachers with three or more years experience.

"The thing we need to keep in mind is, if a school is going to fire a teacher for cause, then we're really protecting the kids, not the teacher," said Sen. Julia Lynn, R-Olathe, who supported the amendment. "We're putting the education of our kids ahead of the status quo if a teacher is not effective."

Democrats Anthony Hensley of Topeka, a teacher in the Topeka school district, and Tom Hawk of Manhattan, a former school administrator, said it isn't true that schools cannot fire ineffective teachers who have tenure.

"I can speak from my own experience of having dealt teachers who didn't get the job done," Hawk said. "I had no problem going through due process for those teachers. I believe they deserve due process, and it does work."

The Senate is expected to take final action on the bill Friday. If the House also passes its bill Friday, the bills would be sent to conference committees, and the two chambers may work through the weekend to finish work to send a final package to the governor before the Legislature adjourns the regular session.

Friday was initially scheduled to be the last day of the regular session. Lawmakers will return April 30 for the start of a wrap-up session to deal with any bills or spending items vetoed by the governor, and to make final budget adjustments in line with new revenue estimates.

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