TOPEKA — Kansas senators and representatives reached an agreement Wednesday on a bill reshaping K-12 education primarily through several initiatives designed to give struggling students and families options beyond public schools.
The bill brought forth through the House K-12 Budget Education combines policy and financial elements of public education. Democratic legislators and public school advocates have called it the “Frankenstein” bill, but Republican committee members championed the measure as a much-needed push away from a poorly performing education system.
While some provisions have come across the Senate Education Committee’s radar, this is the first instance to address some newer provisions. After a preliminary offer from the House contingency Tuesday, lawmakers reunited to offer amendments and hear the Senate’s response.
Despite concerns among some House members during the floor debate about certain school choice elements of the bill, changes made to the final product were minimal beyond setting guardrails for some provisions. Rep. Kristey Williams, an Augusta Republican and chairwoman of the House K-12 Education Budget Committee, said these programs would be another tool in the toolbox to move from an inadequate status quo.
“Whenever we spend $5.8 billion, we should always be talking about student achievement with it,” Williams said. “We should be talking about kids, at-risk kids, all kids. That is why I am pleased that we are pairing funding with policy. They should go hand in hand.”
While all four Republican members of the conference committee agreed on the bill, the Democratic representation chose not to support it despite the deal being “sweetened” and containing things like full K-12 education funding. Both the Senate and House can now vote on Senate Bill 175 at any time. If it passes both chambers, it will go to the governor for consideration.
Without any significant adjustments to the bill — which narrowly passed on the House floor last week — it remains to be seen if the measure will receive enough support to withstand a veto from the governor should she opt to.
Among the elements, some unsure House members asked to be addressed that were not removed was the Republican-dubbed “Student Empowerment Act.” The act would enable families to access the standard per-pupil aid normally provided to public schools through an educations savings account.
The program would be available to students designated as “at-risk” to use for private school tuition and other educational expenses.
“These are policy pieces I think we should be debating separately instead of playing games with our school finance formula,” said Senate Minority Leader Dinah Sykes. “One side of the aisle is playing games, and they’re trying to get bad policy by attaching it to a funding piece.”
While the provisions and intent remain the same, legislators did add an element of Senate Bill 173 to clarify who would be defined as at-risk students. Among qualifying criteria to be eligible to receive at-risk services where students who are below grade level, have a high rate of absenteeism or are an English language learner.
Also added to the list were those struggling with dyslexia.
“In Kansas, not every school district is taking those steps for students to be diagnosed as having dyslexia,” said Sen. Molly Baumgardner, a Louisburg Republican and chairwoman of the Senate education panel. “We know that as a state, we’ve got quite a way to go with regard to addressing dyslexia.”
Adding guardrails to the definition of at-risk students was among the issues needing to be ironed out in negotiations, Baumgardner said. The bill extends full funding to K-12 education in 2021 and 2022 before removing a funding formula provision based on the number of at-risk students per square mile.
Another issue addressed Wednesday was the possibility of students and families stacking the Student Empowerment Act with a scholarship tax credit clause. Under the tax credit section, organizations that grant scholarships for private schools would be reimbursed up to $8,000 in tax credits per student per year.
Under the agreed-upon bill, the state treasurer would be directed not to enter into an agreement for an education savings account if the otherwise eligible student is making use of the tax credit program.
The joint committee also struck a provision extending the 20-mill statewide property tax, which generates about $725 million for school funding, because a separate appropriations committee was considering the matter.
Rep. Valdenia Winn, D-Kansas City, said she could not support a bill with many questionable provisions. She also said there are still questions about the cost and effectiveness of these school choice programs in Kansas.
“I understand what is not working, but to say that this is the answer, we don’t have data based on this in Kansas,” Winn said. “So, it may succeed in California, it may succeed in Florida, Colorado, but we don’t know yet here.”