Kansas House drops bill to remove gifted children from special-ed status

Gifted-education students listen to a lesson from Andrea Piros at McCollom Elementary School in 2015.
Gifted-education students listen to a lesson from Andrea Piros at McCollom Elementary School in 2015. File photo

A proposal to remove gifted children from the realm of special education in Kansas was abandoned Tuesday, after an outcry from advocates for gifted education.

“Obviously, I’m delighted,” said Kelly Reynolds, president of the Kansas Association for the Gifted, Talented and Creative, a nonprofit advocacy group.

“Hopefully, our organization and other stakeholder organizations can look at the future of gifted education and make a determination of what’s going to be in the best interest of all students.”

House Bill 2630, introduced Monday by the House Committee on Education, was similar to one that gifted-education advocates fought last year, saying it could gut funding for gifted education and do away with protections that gifted students and their families have.

On Tuesday afternoon, prior to a committee hearing on a different topic, Rep. Sue Boldra, R-Hays, told reporters she planned to withdraw the proposal. Boldra said the idea was not to eliminate gifted programs but to separate them from special education.

Rep. Ron Highland, R-Wamego, chairman of the committee, said the bill would not have a hearing. Boldra said the topic won’t be taken up this session but could be next year or later.

The development was welcome news to parents of gifted students in Wichita and elsewhere, many of whom had spent the previous dozen hours urging lawmakers to reject the proposal.

“It’s infuriating,” said Charlene Randle, a Wichita mother whose high school son was identified as gifted in elementary school.

“There’s this impression out there that gifted kids don’t need extra support because they’ll figure it out themselves,” she said. “But it’s more than just giving a kid an accelerated curriculum.

“The problem with putting these children in a regular-ed classroom is they are held back from their potential because teachers cannot meet their needs.”

The proposal introduced Monday would have removed references of gifted children from the category of special education.

About 14,000 Kansas students are identified as intellectually gifted, meaning they completed a battery of assessments and were approved to receive special-education services. Wichita, the state’s largest district, has about 1,200 gifted students.

Along with mandating that gifted children receive services based on their needs, Kansas also requires teachers of the gifted to have specialized training and certification.

Advocates across the country say they hold up Kansas as an example of the way gifted education should be mandated, regulated and funded. The state spends about $12 million a year on gifted education – most of it in the form of reimbursements to districts based on the number of teachers for the gifted that they employ.

At last count, 35 states mandate gifted programming in some way, but funding for those programs varies widely. Seven states provide no funding for gifted programs. Nineteen states, including Kansas, provide partial funding to districts.

Only Georgia, Iowa, Oklahoma and Mississippi mandate gifted programming and provide full funding for it.

Reynolds, president of the advocacy group and a teacher of gifted students in Kansas City, Kan., said Monday’s proposal caught his group by surprise, but they quickly mobilized via social media and other avenues.

“It’s criminal, in my mind,” Reynolds said of the House proposal.

“Historically, when societies are in trouble they start holding their gifted youth in higher and higher esteem because we need leadership, and we need guidance,” he said. “But instead, we’re defunding them. … We need a call to arms to protect gifted education.”

It was unclear early Tuesday afternoon why Boldra, an instructor in the department of teacher education at Fort Hays State University, had proposed the bill and later decided to pull it from consideration.

Stacy Ortega-Engels, the parent of three gifted students, said time spent on enrichment activities outside of regular classes was crucial for her children throughout their school careers.

“The only thing that kept any of them engaged was knowing they were going to be challenged every day,” she said.

Her youngest son, now a sophomore, was doing calculus in fourth grade because a gifted teacher at Seltzer Elementary School “had a group of kids who really enjoyed math, so he just let them go as far as they could go,” Ortega-Engels said.

Now her children want to move out of Kansas, she said.

“The message they’re sending is that we don’t value the best and the brightest here,” she said. “A person who doesn’t have kids in school right now might believe this doesn’t affect them, but it does. It affects everybody.”

Reynolds, while relieved the proposal was dropped Tuesday, remained wary that gifted education and funding could be part of future cost-cutting plans.

“It seems like every year we’re just clawing our way, trying to hang on,” he said.

Suzanne Perez Tobias: 316-268-6567, @suzannetobias

Contributing: Ed Eveld of The Kansas City Star.