Kansas Senate passes school finance bill stripping funding for Common Core standards

04/27/2014 9:00 AM

08/08/2014 10:23 AM

The Senate voted to halt state spending on Common Core on Thursday night, during debate over a court-ordered fix for funding inequities between school districts.

It went on to pass a school finance bill that provides more money for local option budgets if voters approve, grants tax credits to parents who have their children in private school or home school, allows tax breaks for corporations that provide scholarships for private schools and removes administrative due process for public school teachers.

Senators gave the bill final passage 23-17 a little after 1:30 a.m. Friday.

The House will consider its own school finance bill Friday after its budget committee restored cuts to virtual schools, transportation and at-risk funds late Thursday.

Sen. Forrest Knox, R-Altoona, introduced an amendment early in the Senate debate to halt state money for the implementation of Common Core, a set of national performance standards adopted by the Kansas Board of Education in 2010 without the Legislature’s approval.

It passed, 27-12.

Knox and many others said this would help free up funding to address inequities, but the move caught many educational experts by surprise.

Mark Tallman, spokesman for the Kansas Association of School Boards, said the vote causes uncertainty for districts in the midst of implementing the standards.

“So what does that mean? What are we supposed to do? Because most districts have spent several years adopting curriculum, adopting textbooks that are based on the Common Core standards,” Tallman said.

“One Common Core standard is that essentially that first-graders have to be able to count to 100. So does this mean districts aren’t supposed to teach how to count to 100, because that’s a Common Core standard? Now, I don’t think that’s what they mean, but what do they mean?” He said the practical effect of this amendment was unclear.

The Common Core initiative is sponsored by the National Governors Association and Council of Chief State School Officers. It has been heavily promoted by President Obama and has benefited from incentives offered by the U.S. Department of Education, leading some people to believe it is a federal program.

Sen. Robert Olson, R-Olathe, voted for the amendment because of his objection to federal influence over education.

“It should be a state issue, not the federal government intruding into our schools, you know. To me, the state should be the one setting curriculum, and what the kids should be taught in our schools,” Olson said. “It’s pretty easy.”

Education Commissioner Diane DeBacker has repeatedly cautioned against efforts to drop the standards and tried to dispel the misconception that they are a federal policy.

But Olson contended there was federal influence and that funding should be halted. “Yea, but the feds are demanding all sorts of information. … I don’t agree with it,” he said.

Sen. Ty Masterson, R-Andover, said the Common Core had been leveraged by the federal government, as it has been required for federal grants and a waiver for No Child Left Behind.

He said he wanted to give Kansas school districts more control over their curriculum, and also cited the high cost of Common Core implementation as a reason for his vote in favor of the amendment.

Senate plan’s details

The Senate plan would allocate about $103.8 million statewide to address local option budget gaps between districts. The local option budget, money that comes from a community’s property taxes, is one of two funding areas where the Supreme Court identified unconstitutional inequities between school districts.

The bill would require school districts already at 30 percent on local option budget funds, such as the Wichita school district, to hold elections in order to raise that cap to up to 33 percent.

Without a citywide vote to approve an increase, that money would go toward property tax relief instead of to classrooms.

Senate Vice President Jeff King, R-Independence, said on the Senate floor that the bill would give the voters of Kansas the opportunity to decide whether to increase money to schools.

The bill could provide up to $110 million to schools, depending on whether districts across the state choose to increase the local option budget cap, King said.

Senate Minority Leader Anthony Hensley, D-Topeka, accused Republicans of passing the buck to taxpayers, who would have to vote against their own property tax relief to increase school spending. He said the bill “robs Peter to pay Paul, or better yet Peter to pay Peter.”

He called the bill a “sleight of hand” because it pays for spending increases in part by cutting other areas of the education budget.

Hensley scrutinized cuts to virtual schools, transportation and funding for at-risk students.

He said the at-risk funding cuts hit four districts disproportionately: Wichita, Kansas City, Hutchinson and Dodge City.

He also said that the proposed 16.3 percent cut to districts’ transportation budgets would be a huge loss for rural school districts.

King said those districts all stood to gain, as long as voters approved an increase to the local option budget.

The Wichita school district, for example, could see $11 million in additional money for its daily operations if voters approve an increase in the local option budget. If voters instead chose to use that money for property tax relief, the school district would be left with more than $1 million in cuts.

Mark Desetti, legislative director for the Kansas National Education Association, said the cuts could hurt the state on the still pending issue of whether the state adequately funds schools, which a district court will address in the near future.

“The bill hurts everybody. There’s cuts to vital student programs. We’re doing all this conversation about the achievement gap and then we’re going to pay for equity by cutting the very programs that address the achievement gap. That doesn’t make any sense whatsoever,” Desetti said.

But Senate Majority Leader Terry Bruce, R-Hutchinson, one of the primary architects of the bill, said there is strong evidence that the proposed changes will meet the court’s standard.

“You’ve got to look at what we have shifted around. Take, for example, the transportation weighting. It’s just a math problem that’s been in the formula for a while and it doesn’t distribute the costs where they should be going,” Bruce said, citing a 2006 audit that discovered a mathematical error in the finance formula had caused the state to overpay for transportation.

Hensley introduced an amendment that would have stripped out all of the changes to the funding formula, eliminated additional policy changes and replaced them with what he called a clean bill that would put $129 million toward equalization with no strings attached.

King said Hensley’s bill would have failed to steer money to the classroom and that bulk of this money would have gone to property tax relief. The amendment was defeated 29-11.

Property, corporate tax breaks

Sen. Carolyn McGinn, R-Sedgwick, one of three Republicans to vote for Hensley’s amendments, raised concerns in a Republican caucus meeting before the debate about a bill provision that would grant property tax breaks to families who home school or send their kids to private schools.

Sen. Dennis Pyle, R-Hiawatha, who came up with the idea, contended that the principle at stake is whether money should go with the student or the institution. He also said that this would be an incentive for people to buy property, as the break would not apply to renters.

When that amendment was added earlier in the week, its cost was unknown. As of Thursday night, there was still no fiscal note about its cost. Pyle claimed it would cost about $5 million and that it would not affect school districts’ budgets since they are funded per student.

But a Department of Revenue estimate pegged the cost closer to $17.7 million.

And some legislators worried it could go even higher. About 46,000 students in Kansas are educated outside the public school system, according the Kansas Association of School Boards.

Sen. Jeff Longbine, R-Emporia, said the policy would set a bad precedent. He questioned how legislators could support it without knowing its fiscal impact. He also said that when parents choose to send their child to private school, that cost is something they weigh when they make that choice.

Sen. Susan Wagle, R-Wichita, introduced an amendment to offer corporations tax breaks for their donations to private school scholarships for low-income and special-needs students. Wagle’s amendment passed by voice vote without a roll call.

Administrative hearings for teachers

The Senate also approved an amendment from Sen. Tom Arpke, R-Salina, that eliminates administrative hearings for public school teachers before a school district can terminate their employment.

Arpke said high performing teachers would have no reason to worry about this change, but that it would allow schools to get rid of teachers who should not be in the classroom. He blamed tenure for letting under-performing teachers continue to teach and called this unfair to students.

Wagle said schools should become at-will employers like private businesses.

Hensley, a public school teacher, said the Senate should not make radical changes that had not been vetted.

Sen. Tom Hawk, D-Manhattan, a former superintendent, said that the administrative hearings are essential to determine whether teachers really should be dismissed. He said sometimes the teachers who go through this process have been wrongly targeted for speaking up to their principals and are excellent classroom leaders.

When dismissal is actually warranted, he said, administrative due process proves that fact.

House moves toward center

While the Senate moved toward the right with its bill, the House surprised many by moving toward the center.

The House Appropriations Committee restored money cuts to virtual schools, transportation budgets and funds for new facilities. Conservative policy pieces, such as vouchers and charter schools, didn’t even come up during the meeting.

It also restored money for districts like Wichita that receive funding for having a high number of at-risk students.

“There’s very few cuts,” Rep. Mark Hutton, R-Wichita, a member of the committee said. “And most of the D’s voted with us.”

Democrats have repeatedly called on the Legislature to pass a clean bill.

Rep. Kathy Wolfe Moore, D-Kansas City, said if the House passes the SB 218 on Friday, it’ll have come pretty close to doing just that.

“I think it’s probably the best bill we can expect. And I think it’s good for most school districts and I’m overall pleased with it,” she said.

Wolfe Moore said it appears to be a centrist bill now.

Tom Krebs, spokesman for the Kansas Association School Boards, said that he thinks most of his organization’s members will be pleased with the changes.

The bill would still require a vote for school districts to receive the extra local option budget money.

House Majority Leader Jene Vickrey, R-Louisburg, resisted the notion that the bill had been pushed to the middle.

“Our goal consistently as Republicans is we’re in favor of equity,” he said.

Vickrey said the House will debate the bill on Friday and that he expected amendments to made, but was confident that the bill in its current form would satisfy the obligation to the court to fix inequities.

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