TOPEKA — Charter schools were never supposed to be part of the Republican plan to fix school finance inequities, according to the speaker of the Kansas House.
Language that would have allowed for rapid expansion of charter schools with little state regulation was added to a bill late Thursday without the knowledge of the governor or of House or Senate leaders.
The Legislature has until July 1 to respond to a state Supreme Court order to fix funding disparities between richer and poorer school districts across the state – a fix that the state Education Department has estimated would cost $129 million.
Late Thursday, House Republicans introduced a bill to solve that problem after two weeks of discussion between the governor’s office and legislative leaders. The bill included $129 million in additional funding, but also included arguably radical provisions that were never discussed during the two weeks of meetings, according to a statement released by House Speaker Ray Merrick’s office.
House Bill 2773 would have set up a Kansas Independent Charter School Board that would have been completely independent from the state’s Department of Education. The board would have the power to authorize public charter schools and free them from any state laws and regulations deemed a hindrance to educational goals.
These schools would have been privately run but primarily funded by public dollars.
Those changes were added behind the back of the speaker by Rep. Marc Rhoades, R-Newton, and Rep. Kasha Kelley, R-Arkansas City. The first time Merrick heard about the charter school legislation was Thursday evening after being questioned by reporters.
Rhoades released a statement Friday morning.
“The piece about charter schools was added in at the last moment at the request of a member and I take full responsibility for that decision,” Rhoades, the House Appropriations chair, said.
“The intention was to have a debate about the issue in committee, never to undermine negotiations between the House, Senate, and Governor. The better option is for members to bring amendments in committee or on the House floor when the bill is up for debate.”
Merrick’s office announced Friday that House leadership would be introducing a new bill without the charter school language. He later confirmed that the new bill would still contain other major policy changes, including an income tax credit for corporations that make donations to scholarship funds.
“Things happen around here,” Merrick said, when asked how the changes could be made without his knowledge. But he also said that he thought there was no malice behind the changes. “And it’s like anything else around here, I cannot know everything,” Merrick said.
Merrick is not necessarily opposed to charter schools, but he said the addition could hurt House leaders’ negotiations with the governor and with Senate leadership. He said amendments could be considered in committee and on the floor, but that the charter school issue should not be the focus as the Legislature works toward a solution on school equity.
This is not the first time this session Merrick has not been fully informed about a major House bill. Earlier this session the House passed a controversial religious freedom bill that critics said would have sanctioned discrimination against same-sex couples. Many House members, including Merrick, later said they did not realize its full impact.
“I think everybody in this building has that happen to them. I can’t be everywhere at one time. And you know, we’ve had two hiccups this year. I’ve been here for 15 years and there’ve been hiccups like this every year. I don’t think it’s endemic,” Merrick said.
Kelley, who chairs the House Education Committee, defended the policy. She said it was meant to address a still pending question of the adequacy on school funding that will be decided in part by student performance.
Kelley thinks that expanding charter schools will increase learning opportunities for at-risk children schools.
“When you’re looking at this persistent gap that we’ve had with our at-risk and non-proficient children for years … this seems like a reasonable approach that would allow some of those kids to have educational opportunities that they need,” Kelley said.
But charter schools already exist in Kansas and are overseen by local school boards. The 23 pages of legislation added to the bill by Rhoades and Kelley would have set up a board, which would be appointed by the governor and legislative leaders, and would have been able to authorize charters.
The board would be able to approve charter schools free of almost any state regulation. But the schools would still receive significant state funding, along with private donations. This is modeled on a piece of legislation created by American Legislative Exchange Council, an organization that promotes conservative ideas across the nation.
“I have said many times before that we put too many regulations on schools,” Kelley said. “I believe that district administrators and teachers are creative people if they can get outside of some of the frameworks.” She said that regulations could hamper charter schools trying to innovate.
Current charter school law
Mark Desetti, spokesman for the Kansas National Education Association, said the state’s current charter school law works well because it ensures accountability. This bill, however, would have made it possible for charter schools to receive public funding without accreditation and it would have also opened the door for private schools to reorganize as charters in order to receive public dollars.
Rep. Jim Ward, D-Wichita, said the policy change would have a huge and potentially negative impact and that the way it was introduced to the bill signals its problems.
“I think the actions speak for themselves. Backroom deal cutting is what makes people disgusted with politics and those kind of policy changes have significant consequences. And that’s why transparency and openness is a better policy,” Ward said.
He also argued that these policy reforms should not be with the court-ordered mandate to create more equitable funding.
“It distracts from the main issue, which is how do we fund schools and meet our obligations under the constitution,” he said. “And this petty game-playing by the Republican caucus distracts from the main issues.”