Democratic Rep. Valdenia Winn, left, and Republican Rep. Sean Tarwater disagreed about merits of a Senate bill requiring all 286 Kansas public school districts to offer students full-time, in-person instruction by March 26 and to never turn to exclusive online teaching again. (Sherman Smith/Kansas Reflector)
TOPEKA — The Kansas House descended into an unusual debate about academic achievement gaps between public and parochial schools Monday before advancing a bill mandating all public school districts offer in-person instruction to every student in less than two weeks and never again revert to online-only teaching in a public health emergency.
The potential of salty dialogue on Senate Bill 235 was realized when Rep. Shawn Tarwater praised the legislation by asserting the Kansas City, Kansas, public school district failed students in kindergarten through 12th grade by refusing to abandon pandemic-inspired limits on face-to-face interaction between teachers and students. He said nine Catholic schools in Wyandotte County resumed in-person teaching in August 2020 and standardized testing showed those schools did a better job of educating students.
“It’s clear that the Catholic schools care about the kids,” said Tarwater, a Stilwell Republican who argued COVID-19 precautions were a rationalization to avoid regular classes. “No more excuses. These local school boards have let those children down. Now it’s up to us to help them out.”
Democratic Rep. Valdenia Winn, who serves on school board in Kansas City, Kansas, said it was improper to compare standardized test results at private schools with a couple hundred students against a public school district serving more than 22,000 students. She said forcing every district in the state back to in-person teaching wouldn’t address the achievement gap referenced by Tarwater nor would it resolve challenges of systematic racism and poverty or obstacles to reforming the curriculum and teacher education.
“You may know some facts, but you have no clue on what is going on,” Winn said on the House floor. “The premise that I heard, and I could be wrong and would love to be corrected, is that the school district … didn’t care enough about the kids, but the Catholic schools were doing the caring bit.”
She said target of the legislation were the low-income districts of Wichita and Kansas City, Kansas, who have not yet returned to normal instructional schedules.
In Wichita, the school board voted unanimously to transition middle school and high school students to five-day-a-week schedules on March 25. Elementary school students in Wichita have been in full-time, in-person instructional settings. The school board in Kansas City, Kansas agreed to bring all grade levels back to in-person instruction April 5. Both districts granted students the option of maintaining online instruction.
Rep. Pat Proctor, R-Leavenworth, said he wouldn’t attempt to assign motives to Winn or public education unions that objected to welcoming all children back to school buildings.
He did say wealthy parents likely had stable internet service and computer technology to provide their children with a reasonable online instruction during the COVID-19 pandemic. But, he said, every family in his Leavenworth neighborhood wasn’t so fortunate.
“So, you either have to not provide for your family or you have to leave your kids at home unattended,” Proctor said. “Unintended kids are kids. They’re not going to attend the classes. They’re not going to get as good an education. All kids deserve a good education no matter how much their parents make.”
The bill outlining the education mandate wasn’t amended by the House. It was identical to the version adopted in early March by the Senate on a vote of 26-12. The bill was introduced at the request of Senate President Ty Masterson, a Republican from Andover. It would require the state’s 286 elected school boards to extend offers to all students for full-time, in-person instruction. It wouldn’t mandate the 450,000 students in Kansas accept that opportunity if they prefer to continue in an online format.
Rep. Tim Johnson, a Bonner Springs Republican and a social studies teacher at Basehor-Linwood High School, urged his colleagues to support Senate Bill 235 because enabling some students to attend in-person and others to learn remotely was akin to the “separate but equal” practice of racial segregation in public schools. That feature of racial segregation across the United States was declared unconstitutional in the landmark 1954 decision by the U.S. Supreme Court in Brown v. Topeka Board of Education.
“Separate but equal. That’s what we have here today,” Johnson said.
Rep. Barbara Ballard, a Lawrence Democrat and former Lawrence school board member, said the bill usurped authority of the elected 10-member Kansas Board of Education. She said the legislation also would disturb the preference among conservatives for local control by the 286 elected school boards in Kansas.
“School board had its business. Our county commission had their business. Our city commission had their business. State legislators had theirs. And federal folks had theirs as well,” Ballard said. “For us to decide as a Legislature we know best, that we know better than the state board, I would say is shortsighted.”
The allocation of billions of dollars in state aid to public schools argued in favor of the Legislature outlining “basic provisions” of adequacy and equity of educational opportunity and the obligations of local school boards, said Rep. Kristey Williams, an Augusta Republican and chairwoman of the House K-12 Education Budget Committee.
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