Politics & Government

Brownback signs school finance bill

As House Speaker Ray Merrick, R-Stilwell, left and Senate President Susan Wagle, R-Wichita, right watched, Gov. Sam Brownback signed into law Monday afternoon a school funding bill with controversial add-ons.
As House Speaker Ray Merrick, R-Stilwell, left and Senate President Susan Wagle, R-Wichita, right watched, Gov. Sam Brownback signed into law Monday afternoon a school funding bill with controversial add-ons. Associated Press

Gov. Sam Brownback signed a controversial school finance bill Monday that sends million of dollars to schools but also ends mandatory due process hearings before experienced teachers can be fired.

The bill also allows school districts to hire unlicensed teachers for science and math classes. And it creates a tax break for corporations that donate to private school scholarship funds.

“This is a win for Kansas students. This is a win for parents. … And it’s a win for property taxpayers,” Brownback said moments before signing House Bill 2506. “This is some of the most significant reforms we’ve seen for several years in the state.”

The bill is the Legislature’s response to a state Supreme Court order to fix inequities in funding among school districts before July 1. It allocates $129 million to close gaps in the capital outlay fund and the local option budget fund, drawn from local property taxes.

In districts like Wichita that already are at the LOB cap, much of the state money will go to property tax relief – an estimated $11 million in Wichita, according to analysis by the Department of Education.

Area districts such as Andover, Derby, Goddard, Haysville and Maize will see between $1.1 million and $1.8 million in property tax relief.

The school finance changes will now go before a three-judge panel that will decide whether the Legislature has met the Supreme Court’s order to make school funding more equitable among districts. The panel still must rule on whether overall school funding is adequate.

John Robb, a lawyer for the school districts that sued the state, said the bill appeared to meet the Kansas Supreme Court’s equity mandate but that he expected the court to find the state does not spend enough overall.

He said it was unfortunate the bill also contains “unnecessary policy items that don’t benefit public school students,” including a cut in at-risk student funding.

Diane Gjerstad, lobbyist for the Wichita school district, said the benefits for Wichita will be limited because the additional local option budget funds come with cuts to at-risk funding and other areas. She said the total increase for the district would be $1.7 million.

She also said that because HB2506 enables some districts already at the cap for local option budgets to raise their LOBs without a vote for one year, the bill might create more inequity between rich and poor districts.

“It’s going to widen the gap between the haves and the have-nots because some school districts are going to be able to raise their LOB. Most will not. And a few of us are going to lose some at-risk funding that’s pretty critical,” Gjerstad said.

Senate President Susan Wagle, R-Wichita, disagreed and said that legislative leaders have worked closely with attorneys to make sure they are meeting the court’s demand for equity.

Contentious bill

The bill narrowly passed the Legislature on April 6 after two days of heated middle-of-the-night meetings and marathon debates.

Its most hotly contested section will end due process hearings that were mandatory before a teacher with three or more years of experience could be fired by a school district.

Republican supporters say this will improve teacher quality. Opponents say it will enable administrators to unfairly target teachers for a variety of reasons.

In addition, the bill will relax licensing requirements to allow districts to hire people without teacher training to serve as teachers in math, engineering, science, technology, finance or accounting. Districts could hire any applicant who has a bachelor’s degree and at least five years’ work experience in one of those fields.

“What if you can bring a retired heart doctor into the classroom to teach biology now, which you couldn’t before? And what can that teacher do and inspire and instruct that you couldn’t do before?” Brownback said.

The bill creates a tax break for corporations that donate to private school scholarship funds for low-income and special-needs students. This could cost the state up to $10 million a year.

Brownback said this provision will enable poor children to chase their dreams. Opponents have criticized the prospect of taxpayer money going to for-profit corporations to pay for tuition at private schools.

The bill has been strongly opposed by the Kansas National Education Association for tying the funding to what some call unvetted policy changes. The union contends that due process hearings do not protect bad teachers but instead protect good teachers from being fired if they clash with administrators in the process of advocating for students.

“He’s going to cause some serious problems for teachers who advocate for their students. He’s going to take $10 million and throw it at unaccredited private schools,” said Mark Desetti, the union’s legislative director. “The policy pieces in this bill are poisonous to Kansas public schools.”

House Minority Leader Paul Davis, Brownback’s main challenger in the November election, had proposed the governor veto HB2506. He said in an e-mail that Brownback’s “allies tied unpopular, partisan policies to the essential dollars for our classrooms.”

Desetti said Kansas ranks 42nd in the nation in teacher pay, and that, coupled with the lack of protections, will inhibit the state from attracting quality teachers.

Local control

Brownback said that school districts will have flexibility to increase teacher pay in order to attract teachers.

House Speaker Ray Merrick, R-Stilwell, said individual school districts could still decide to offer due process hearings but are freed from a state requirement.

“I think what’s being missed in this whole thing is the local control aspect. The school districts hire the teachers and negotiate the contract,” he said.

Wagle disputed that the policy, which was added to the bill without any hearings, had not been thoroughly vetted.

“We have talked about tenure reform for many, many years,” she said. Wagle added that teachers should not be treated as a special class.

Both the Kansas Chamber of Commerce and Americans for Prosperity called for the governor to sign the bill.

Jeff Glendening, state director of AFP, was present at the bill signing, which he called a great day for Kansas students.

“I think having the ability for Kansas students to know that they have a good teacher and for parents to know that their kids have got a good teacher in the classroom is very important,” he said. Merrick walked by and patted him on the shoulder as he explained this point.

AFP’s foundation is chaired by David Koch, executive vice president of Wichita-based Koch Industries.

‘Hornet’s nest?’

Chapman Rackaway, a professor of political science for Fort Hays State University, said that signing the bill is a huge political victory for Brownback in an election year, given that the money for local option budget funds will provide both property tax relief and more dollars for schools.

“He can say, ‘I lowered your income taxes, I put more money in schools, and I’m softening your property tax burden,’ ” Rackaway said. “It lets him cut the legs under most of the Davis campaign’s message. He’d be a fool not to sign this bill, strategically speaking.”

Bob Beatty, a professor of political science, said the bill, with the due process change, could galvanize moderates against Brownback and other conservatives.

“Is this the issue that is like the stick going into the hornet’s nest?” he said.

Rep. Barbara Bollier, R-Mission Hills, a moderate who voted against the bill, said it had divided the Republican Party.

“When the governor was elected, his comment was, ‘I am going to make everyone happy and everyone mad.’ And I think that’s the perfect description of this bill,” Bollier said.

“It’s setting off everything. It’s kind of like somebody going out in the street and doing whatever and every car alarm goes off.”

Rep. Steve Huebert, R-Valley Center, who voted for the bill, said the governor had little choice but to sign the bill because of the court deadline.

He doubted that another bill could have found majority support in both the House and Senate during a short wrap-up session that starts April 30. HB2506 passed the House with 63 votes, the minimum for a constitutional majority.

“I think the governor really didn’t have any choice but to sign this but because of the underlying issue of the school financing,” Huebert said. “You’d have to start from scratch again.”

Contributing: Dion Lefler of The Eagle

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