Kansas: Over teachers’ objections, Brownback signs ‘good’ school finance bill
Topeka Gov. Sam Brownback on Monday signed into law a school finance bill that will provide more funds to classrooms in an effort to comply with a court order, but also includes controversial policy changes, including the repeal of tenure for teachers.
“This is a good bill,” Brownback said.
The funding portion of the bill is meant to address a Kansas Supreme Court order handed down in March to increase aid to poor school districts by July 1.
The measure will provide $150 million with about half going to schools and half to property tax relief, Brownback said. It also includes funding for higher education.
The changes made to the funding strategy will mean that Lawrence schools have $1.7 million less to spend, money that school leaders may seek to make up with higher local taxes.
“I think it’s a bill that’s loaded up with bad policy that probably could not pass on its own,” said Lawrence school board President Rick Ingram. “The cut in funding to Lawrence on top of the cuts we’ve already experienced will lead to some hard decisions about how we’re going to deal with that.”
Teacher groups have criticized the measure because it removes key job protections that have been in law for decades.
At the start of Brownback’s bill-signing news conference Monday, Aaron Estabrook, a school board member from Manhattan, gave Brownback a copy of petitions signed by 3,000 teachers, parents and students urging the governor not to sign the bill.
“This hasn’t been debated. It hasn’t been transparent,” Estabrook said to Brownback.
The removal of tenure was placed in the bill during floor debate in the Senate and did not receive a public hearing.
Both Senate President Susan Wagle, R-Wichita, and House Speaker Ray Merrick, R-Stilwell, defended the move. The final bill received only Republican support.
“We have talked about tenure reform for many, many years,” Wagle said. As far as how the proposal was passed, Wagle said no House or Senate rules were violated. “I think we did the right thing for our children,” she said.
For the Lawrence school district, the bill will provide about $1 million in local property tax relief by adding more state funding for the district’s local option budget. That money would replace funds currently being raised through local taxes.
Overall, though, the bill will result in a net loss of $1.7 million in total spending authority, according to school district officials, mainly because students at the district’s two virtual schools would no longer count toward calculating the local option budget.
But Lawrence could replace about $1.4 million of that by taking advantage of a provision that allows districts to increase their LOB’s, something Superintendent Rick Doll has said he would recommend if the bill became law.
The Baldwin City school district will get an additional $471,036 in state funding, according to Kansas State Department of Education estimates. That includes $162,471 in new aid for capital outlay expenses.
“Overall, it’s not a lot more money for us, other than the capital outlay money,” said Baldwin City Superintendent Paul Dorathy. “But as far as our operating fund, general funds, it doesn’t add a lot to that.” Baldwin City schools could also generate up to $314.903 beyond that if it chooses to raise its LOB up to the new maximum.
The Eudora school district will see an additional $615,428 in state funding and could generate yet another $464,435 by taking full advantage of the LOB provision.
Those estimates are based on each district’s current enrollment and are subject to change depending on whether their enrollment goes up or down next year.
Brownback said repealing the state law setting up tenure protections for teachers will allow local school districts to make the decision on whether to offer tenure.
“It makes it a local issue, and I think that’s a good place for it to be,” he said.
Local school district officials, however, say they’re taking a wait-and-see approach to that issue.
“Our board will be very cautious on how we move forward on that law as it’s written,” Dorathy said. “There may be some challenges with that. Our district will be very cautious in moving forward in considering teachers have no due process at this point.”
Lawrence school board Vice President Shannon Kimball said she was disappointed when that provision was added as an amendment to the bill without any public comment or committee hearings.
“Regardless of where you fall on whether that’s a good policy change or not, I find the way it was handled distasteful,” Kimball said. “It’s not the way we should be handling policy in Kansas.”
In addition to repealing tenure, the law will provide tax credits to corporations that donate funds to send low-income students to private schools, and relax teacher licensure requirements.
All those proposals were supported by the Kansas chapter of Americans for Prosperity, a nationwide organization that describes itself as “advancing every individual’s right to economic freedom and opportunity.” It supports cutting both taxes and government spending and was founded by Charles and David Koch, who run Wichita-based Koch Industries.
“We applaud the Legislature and Gov. Brownback for implementing these policy changes that better serve students and parents over institutions,” said Jeff Glendening, AFP State Director.
Likely political fallout
The new law will likely be hotly debated during the governor’s race between Brownback and his likely Democratic challenger, House Minority Leader Paul Davis of Lawrence.
A group backing Brownback, Road Map Solutions Inc., has launched a TV commercial praising Brownback for the measure.
Davis issued a statement Monday criticizing Brownback for approving the addition of partisan policies to the law.