Kansas lawmakers seek classroom tweaks in school budget row
Topeka Conservative Republicans have tried but failed to overhaul Kansas' school curriculums in each of the past two years, but with a bigger majority in the state House and a looming budget crisis, some believe this could be the year they finally get their way.
Kansas is facing budget shortfalls of nearly $600 million for the fiscal year that begins July 1. State governments are barred from running deficits year-to-year, which can give leverage to groups that attach policy changes to budget bills late in the legislative session when they must pass.
Last year, conservatives succeeded in attaching several initiatives to an education funding bill, including an end to guaranteed tenure for public school teachers.
Rep. Ed Trimmer, a Winfield Democrat who serves on the House Education Committee, said he's concerned that conservatives will try to use the same tactic this year.
"We set the precedent last year to do it," he said.
Republican Rep. John Bradford, of Lansing, said the turnover in the House since the November elections will make it easier to push further for a repeal of the Common Core education standards. Forty-four states have adopted the standards, which set benchmarks designed to raise reading and math skills, but critics say they usurp local school boards' authority to design their own curriculums.
"I think because of parental involvement, teacher dissatisfaction, a multitude of other things, we will evolve Common Core into something that is compatible if we don't eliminate it outright," Bradford said.
Sen. Steve Abrams, an Arkansas City Republican who chairs a Senate committee considering a Common Core repeal bill, said he would wait to schedule hearings on it until he senses that the House would be likely to pass it.
Republican Gov. Sam Brownback has also proposed repealing Kansas' school funding formula and replacing it with block grants to each school district. This came after a panel of three district judges ruled December that the state needs to spend at least $548 million more to fund schools at a constitutionally appropriate level under the formula.
Mike O'Neal, president of the Kansas Chamber of Commerce, said he supports the move and would like to see the governor take it further. The Kansas Chamber of Commerce is the state's largest business group and has been a major backer of conservative candidates.
O'Neal said he would like to see the state move to a funding model for public schools in which districts would have to compete for specific grants and potentially make structural changes in order to receive the funds.
"I don't want to set up any schools for failure, but we need to change the mentality of, if they don't get good results, 'well it was probably because we didn't get enough money,'" O'Neal said.
Republican Sen. Julia Lynn, of Olathe, said the Senate Commerce Committee, which she chairs, would be seeking ways to build ties between prospective employers and educational institutions, and to include more vocational training in public schools during this legislative session.
"This budget will give us the opportunity to look at structurally how we do K-12, college and community college education. We can focus on how to produce an education made to prepare students for a job," Lynn said.
Other measures before the Legislature would drastically narrow negotiations between teachers and school boards and allow parents to sue educators for exposing students to material deemed to be "harmful to minors."
Democrat Anthony Hensley, a high school teacher from Topeka who is Senate's minority leader, said he opposes the conservative measures and called Republican lawmakers and Kansas Chamber of Commerce "out of touch" on education.
"It's probably been a long, long time since many legislators have been in a classroom to know what's going on there," Hensley said.