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Kansas House debates school aid; Senate OKs plan

4/4/2014

TOPEKA (AP) -- Kansas House members were to take up a plan today for boosting aid to poor school districts, after the Senate approved a less generous alternative linking new money to education policies, such as blocking the use of multistate reading and math standards.

House members anticipated an extended debate on their plan, which would increase aid to the state's poorest school districts by $141 million during the next school year. House leaders hope to vote quickly on the measure so negotiations can begin with the Senate on the final version of the legislation.

Both the House and Senate plans are responses to a Kansas Supreme Court order last month that directed lawmakers to increase aid to poor school districts by July 1.

The Senate's plan, approved 23-17 early this morning after a long debate stretched to midnight, provides a little less new money for poor districts. It offsets the cost by trimming aid for all school districts for online classes and transportation programs.

But it also makes multiple policy changes favored by conservative Republicans.

Those policy changes include rewriting laws that protect teachers from being dismissed and blocking funding to implement Common Core academic standards.

The House plan was drafted by its Appropriations Committee and later revised. The committee had considered offsetting the cost of additional aid to poor districts by trimming districts' aid for transportation and online classes, but by decreasing payments to cover teacher pensions. The committee backed away from most of those cuts Thursday night.

In the GOP-dominated Senate, no Democrats supported the chamber's plan. In the House, Democrats had some misgivings about the Republican-controlled Appropriations Committee's plan but also some praise.

"It's the best we could do today," said Rep. Jerry Henry, Atchison, the panel's ranking Democrat. "It's a fairly good product. The vast majority of it will be in the final bill."

The House plan does make adjustments in the state budget outside of aid to public schools, so that the increase in total state spending would be about $50 million. The Senate made budget adjustments designed to prevent any overall increase.

But the Senate's plan also is notable for the changes in education policies that come with the funding proposals.

Conservative Republicans have attacked the multistate Common Core reading and math standards since the State Board of Education adopted them in 2010. The measure GOP senators added to the funding plan would prevent the spending of tax dollars on implementing the standards through June 2017.

Opponents see the Common Core standards as akin to federal standards, because federal officials have encouraged their use. Critics also say the standards take control away from states and local districts, and would be costly to put into effect.

"We are in control of the purse, and with that control comes responsibility and accountability," said Sen. Dennis Pyle, a conservative Hiawatha Republican.

But the standards -- adopted at least in part by most states -- were an initiative of governors' and education commissioners' associations, and supporters say they'll improve teaching nationwide.

"The Common Core standards have the potential to do the best possible curriculum for students across the country," said Terry Forsyth, a lobbyist for the Kansas National Education Association, the state's largest teachers' union.

Conservatives also amended the bill to make it easier for school administrators to fire teachers who've been on the job for more than three years. Supporters said the current administrative due process laws make it difficult to remove teachers who are underperforming and ineffective in the classroom.

The bill also includes a proposal to give families sending their children to private schools a tax break of up to $2,500 a year.

"This bill makes unnecessary, un-vetted new education policy," Senate Minority Leader Anthony Hensley, a Topeka Democrat, said in explaining his vote against the plan.