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Eagle editorial: Bad bill now bad law

  • Published Monday, April 21, 2014, at 5:53 p.m.
  • Updated Tuesday, April 22, 2014, at 5:52 a.m.

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Gov. Sam Brownback predictably signed the school-finance bill on Monday afternoon, focusing on its virtues instead of acknowledging that its flaws justified a veto – and another try during the Legislature’s wrap-up session.

Yes, the law answers the Kansas Supreme Court by restoring state funding for school districts’ capital improvements and promising some property-tax relief, and lawmakers sweetened it with some needed funding and bonding authority for higher education. By themselves, those items would have deserved the governor’s signature.

What merited his veto were the provisions that legislators insisted on adding at the last minute to “get something” politically out of the bill.

A Brownback veto would have defended K-12 public school teachers’ professionalism and long-held rights. Instead, for the first time since the 1950s, even teachers with four-plus years of experience can now be fired without an explanation or a chance to challenge their termination in an administrative hearing. Though smart larger districts may negotiate such protections into their contracts as a recruitment tool, there will be nothing to prevent many districts from axing veteran teachers for little or no reason or to save money.

Plus, districts can now hire people with science, technology, math, finance and accounting degrees who have no clue how to teach or handle a classroom. That reform dismisses the skill and training of math and science educators as it meddles in the teacher-licensing authority of the Kansas State Board of Education, which was similarly disregarded in the bill’s doubling of the largely unregulated “innovative districts” allowed under a still-untested 2013 legislative move.

The bill also contains a backdoor taxpayer subsidization of private schools via tax credits for corporations that donate to specific groups that grant scholarships so low-income public school students can shift to religious or other private schools. The tax breaks available are capped at $10 million for now, but such programs in other states have been the subject of controversy and litigation related to favoritism, discrimination and lack of transparency. The Kansas Association of School Boards noted that the private schools eligible to take the scholarship students need not be accredited, participate in state assessment testing or practice nondiscrimination. Tax-subsidized schooling demands more accountability than that.

The bill also reduces the statutory minimum amount of per-pupil state funding for public schools from $4,492 to $3,838. That sure looks like an attempt to circumvent any Kansas Supreme Court ruling trying to hold the state to the higher figure, which was endorsed in the ongoing lawsuit by the trial court in January 2013.

Of course, there was no thorough consideration of the historic policy changes by the legislative committees. Instead, they were inserted in the bill without vetting or full debate, mostly late at night.

The result of that bad lawmaking was a bad bill, which Brownback’s signature just made a bad law.

For the editorial board, Rhonda Holman

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