The confluence of ideas, the significantly more conservative leanings of the Legislature and the anticipated outcome of a school-financing lawsuit promise to make K-12 education one of the most complicated, controversial and unpredictable issues of the 2013 legislative session.
During this year’s session, lawmakers could address a number of education-related issues, including:
Improving fourth-grade reading levels is one of Gov. Sam Brownback’s top priorities.
Lawmakers plan to discuss a proposal to hold third-grade students back if they score less than proficient on state tests, with some exceptions for students with language barriers or other special issues.
If a struggling student’s parents request that the student be promoted to fourth grade anyway, the parents would have to sign a form acknowledging they have been informed of the reading deficiency and agree to “supplemental instruction” until the student is reading at grade level.
Tax credits or vouchers for private schools
Lawmakers have debated the voucher idea on several occasions, but so far the idea has failed. This year, “I think it’s definitely something that will be looked at,” said Rep. Steve Huebert, R-Valley Center, former chair of the Educational Planning Committee.
He said he supports laws like ones in Oklahoma and Florida that provide scholarships for low-income students – or ones in poorly-performing districts – to attend private schools. Some states also grant tax credits to individuals or businesses that contribute to scholarship-granting organizations.
Democrats say such measures would take more money from public schools that are already under-funded, and some argue against allowing their tax dollars to flow to religiously-affiliated schools.
Huebert and others also expect another push for legislation that would make it easier to establish charter schools. School choice advocates consider Kansas’ charter law weak because it requires local school district approval.
This year, just less than 3,000 students are enrolled in 17 charter schools – down from 38 charters a decade ago. More than half of charter schools are virtual schools. There are none in Wichita.
Walt Chappell, a former State Board of Education member from Wichita who lost his re-election bid, said charter schools “aren’t any kind of magic wand,” but he predicts and supports another push toward loosening restrictions and making them easier to open and operate.
“Our charter schools right now are basically charters in name only,” Chappell said. “If a school is credible and has a curriculum and teachers that are qualified, let’s give them a chance to survive. Let’s not slam the door before they can even get started.”
Wichita board member Connie Dietz said the current charter law is fine.
“I have yet to see any study that says overall that charters do a better job than public schools. … So I don’t believe that vouchers or charters are the answer to anything.”
Collective bargaining for teachers
In December the governor’s School Efficiency Task Force recommended revising or narrowing the Professional Negotiations Act, a law that lets teachers unions engage in collective bargaining for salaries and working conditions.
“They want to do away with unions,” said Randy Mousley, president of United Teachers of Wichita.
“We’ve seen this coming. We told people it was coming. And now it’s here, and we’re very aware of what could happen. … This could change the face of education in this state dramatically, and the kids are going to suffer.”
The Kansas Association of School Boards’ legislative agenda calls for one key revision of the Professional Negotiations Act: removing teacher evaluations from the list of things that are subject to collective bargaining. That could change the way districts evaluate teachers and reward them with tenure.
Huebert called the measures “highly likely” and said he would support a move toward merit-based evaluation and tenure systems for teachers rather than ones that primarily reward longevity.
“Young teachers that are really motivated and hungry and doing a great job get kind of frustrated,” Huebert said. “They see other teachers kind of hanging around until retirement and getting the same raises they do – or more – and that’s not right.”
Mousley, the union president, said the new push is “part of an overall attack on public-sector workers” that echoes recent laws in Wisconsin and Ohio that stripped teachers of collective bargaining rights.
“So far no one can really tell me how this is going to improve public education,” he said. “This is a political vendetta and nothing more.”
Expanded career and technical education
Democrats generally agree with Brownback’s approach to encouraging high school students to take tech classes.
Last year, Brownback signed a bill paying students’ tuition for technical education courses at nearby schools and giving school districts $1,000 for each student who graduates with an industry-recognized credential. Lawmakers from both parties say they want to find ways to expand and improve that kind of program.
After the recent mass shooting in Newtown, Conn., school districts and states are reviewing security measures.
Kansas lawmakers could revisit a proposal that would allow Kansans to carry concealed weapons on college campuses, but it’s unclear whether those talks could include K-12 public school buildings.
Huebert said he would support allowing principals or other officials trained to use firearms to keep a weapon locked but accessible inside a school building in case they would need to fend off an active shooter. So far Wichita officials have said they do not support any weapons in schools, which now are designated gun-free zones.