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GOP plan would hike aid to poor schools, expand public charter schools

  • Eagle Topeka bureau
  • Published Thursday, March 20, 2014, at 10:05 p.m.
  • Updated Wednesday, June 11, 2014, at 5:30 p.m.

— The Kansas Supreme Court gave the Legislature an ultimatum to fix inequalities in school funding by July. On Thursday evening, Kansas House Republicans presented their plan for a solution that would put more money into schools, but would also spur creation of more charter schools.

House Bill 2773, the House Republican answer to the Supreme Court’s decision, is dense – the title alone is 15 lines long – and it proposes significant changes to education in Kansas.

The Supreme Court made a twofold decision in the case of Gannon v. State of Kansas, a school finance lawsuit earlier this month. The court found portions of the state’s school funding formula unconstitutional, saying the money is not being distributed fairly, which is harming the state’s smaller and poorer school districts. It gave the Legislature until July 1 to address the fairness issue.

The other portion of the decision sent back a question about whether schools have been adequately funded statewide to a lower court for further review after the Legislature addresses equity.

The new House bill attempts to solve the equality problem and get a running start on the adequacy issue, but it also introduces several reforms to education in Kansas.

It would establish a “K-12 student performance and efficiency commission.”

House Majority Leader Jene Vickrey, R-Louisburg, said the commission would be studying the “Rose Standards,” a set of standards that judge school performance outcomes. The Supreme Court adopted these standards as its model.

It would boost aid to poor school districts by $129 million during the fiscal year that begins July 1, the amount the state Department of Education has estimated is necessary to reverse past cuts in that aid.

But it also makes changes to the school finance formula and introduces several changes.

“If we’re going to spend that money, we’ve got to get some policy stuff. To me, that’s only logical,” said House Speaker Ray Merrick, R-Stilwell, shortly after the bill was introduced.

Expanding charter schools

Merrick called the 91-page bill a “work in progress and a starting point” and said he expected additions to be made and some portions of the bill to be dropped as it goes through the legislative process.

But he also said that House and Senate leadership are on the same page when it comes to the policy changes. The most significant policy change included in the bill is the expansion of public charter schools. The bill states “Kansas recognizes the establishment of public charter schools as necessary to improving the opportunities of all families to choose the public school that meets the needs of their children.”

This language is taken directly from “The Next Generation Charter Schools Act,” a piece of model legislation crafted by the American Legislative Exchange Council, an organization known for promoting conservative legislation.

Charter schools are privately run and have more freedom to operate but still receive public funding. The bill would create “innovative public charter schools which may operate independently of state laws and rules and regulations … deemed by the public charter school authorizer to hinder its goals to achieve at the highest level possible.”

Currently local school boards can authorize charter schools, but the bill would establish that Kansas Independent Chartering Board, which would have the authority to authorize charter schools.

The governor would appoint three members, while the Senate president and House speaker would each appoint two members of their own. The minority leaders of the House and Senate would also both choose an appointee.

Bills that would do the same thing have been stuck in the House and Senate Education committees.

Proponents of charter schools argue that they create innovation in education and that they offer families choice. But critics of charter schools have raised concerns nationwide about both the efficacy of charter schools and the ramifications of giving public dollars to private entities.

For example, the head of largest charter school operator in Illinois stepped down in December after reporting by the Chicago Sun-Times revealed misuse of state funds and prompted an SEC violation. A charter school founder in Philadelphia will be tried in federal court on 54 counts of fraud this summer.

But charter schools have also had their share of high profile successes.

Just last month a study released by the Center For Research on Education Outcomes at Stanford University found that students at charter school students in Los Angeles experienced the equivalent of 65 more days worth of reading instruction and 122 more days worth of math instruction than their traditional public school peers per year.

But other studies have not found charter schools to be as effective.

July 1 deadline

Rep. Jim Ward, D-Wichita, said in a phone call that expansion of charter schools is worth a discussion, but it is wrong for Republicans to tie that into a bill for the state’s public school funding, especially when the Legislature faces a strict July 1 deadline.

“We should have started that (discussion) on day 1. But now when we’re under the deadline of the court to try and hold schools and children hostage for some radical changes in educational policy is wrong and it will continue to get us into litigation,” Ward said.

“I mean go through the whole series of these supposed reforms. They’re all very controversial and they haven’t been vetted with education folks, or with parents, or with stakeholders,” Ward said “You don’t do this in the last week trying to satisfy a constitutional requirement that you failed to do in the last four years.”

Vickrey said the Legislature will hold hearings and work through the bill’s various changes to education policy. He acknowledged that some pieces of the bill may not remain, but he also said that Republicans want to see reforms enacted.

“We’re not trying to do anything but develop good policy which answers what the court wants us to do,” he said.

“But at the end of the day we need to get 63 House members to solve the problem of something we all agree with, and that is that education opportunity in Kansas should be equitable.”

Reach Bryan Lowry at 785-296-3006 or blowry@wichitaeagle.com. Follow him on Twitter: @BryanLowry3.

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