Kelly, Legislature endorse compromise on K-12 education policy, funding

Bill gives districts 5% budget boost, expels school choice plan

Sen. Molly Baumgardner, chairwoman of the Senate Education Committee, praised Friday a compromise school funding bill also championed by Gov. Laura Kelly. (Sherman Smith/Kansas Reflector)
Sen. Molly Baumgardner, chairwoman of the Senate Education Committee, praised Friday a compromise school funding bill also championed by Gov. Laura Kelly. (Sherman Smith/Kansas Reflector)

TOPEKA — A bipartisan education bill embraced by Gov. Laura Kelly appeared headed Friday for approval as the Legislature committed the state to limiting reliance on remote instruction in public schools and to expansion of student eligibility for private school scholarships.

The product of negotiations by House and Senate lawmakers and the governor’s office set in place for two more years the standard 20-mill property tax for education that raises about $750 million annually. Kelly and legislative leaders agreed to full funding of public education at an annual rate of $5.2 billion. The state’s 286 local public school districts would benefit in the upcoming fiscal year from a 5% boost in state aid.

“Our school districts know exactly what the funding is coming to them,” said Sen. Molly Baumgardner, chairwoman of the Senate Education Committee. “Schools are receiving more funding per student. They are being fully funded.”

“We’re happy tonight. I’m probably here for the first time supporting a bill out of K-12,” said Rep. Valdenia Winn, the ranking Democrat on the House Education Committee. “The policy pieces are acceptable because they are for accountability.”

The Senate voted 35-4 and the House later voted 107-9 to adopt a bill increasing the state’s investment in public schools by $277 per student over a two-year period to $4,846 per student. That amount reflects outcome of a school-finance lawsuit reaching the Kansas Supreme Court and prompting the Legislature to pledge funding to help at-risk and minority students secure a suitable education.

The deal included a legislative recommendation that local school boards rely on federal COVID-19 funding to give district employees a $500 bonus.

Sen. Rick Wilborn, a Republican from McPherson, said he rarely made use of the privilege to explain his votes since entering the Senate in 2015. After helping secure approval of the legislation, he said: “One of the finest bills I’ve ever seen.”

Gov. Laura Kelly, a Democrat seeking re-election, endorsed a compromise education bill affirming an increase in state aid to districts, recommending $500 in raises to teachers and restraining hours of online instruction. (Sherman Smith/Kansas Reflector)

Dropped from the package was a House-passed plan to create a school-choice program siphoning hundreds of millions of dollars from public education so at-risk students could enroll at private schools. It would have created education savings accounts so parents of private-school students could pay tuition and a range of other educational expenses with state tax dollars. The Senate had rejected the idea.

Kelly, a Democrat seeking re-election, said she would sign House Bill 2134 despite personal objections to portions of the measure. She said the compromise was in the best interests of nearly 500,000 students across the state.

“I ran for governor on the promise that I would fully fund our schools,” she said. “And, for the third year in a row, we’ve kept that promise, delivered on education and did right by our kids. While I disagree with parts of this bill, I’ve always sought bipartisan solutions, and I will continue working across the aisle to get things done for Kansas families.”

The education bill was among a cluster of budget, coronavirus and tax bills on the agenda as the Legislature worked toward adjournment.

Under the education bill, a student would be generally eligible to apply up to 40 hours of online instruction to the annual classroom-contact requirement. Republican legislators objected to the amount of online instruction that public school students endured during the pandemic.

The state program offering tax credits for contributions to private-school scholarships would be broadened in the bill to include students who qualify for free or reduced-price meals. Currently, the program is open to low-income students eligible for free meals at school and attending one of the 100 lowest-performing public schools in terms of academics.

Future scholarships under this program would be restricted to elementary and middle school students to avoid the temptation of private schools to focus awards on recruiting athletes in high school.

The bill opened the pipeline of at-risk funding to students with dyslexia and allowed state to be used to train teachers to work with these students with reading difficulties.

In addition, the bill earmarked temporary federal coronavirus funding with the Kansas Department of Education to pay for $5 million in school safety grants, $3.9 million to broaden school mental health initiatives and $100,000 for the Communities in Schools programs. It also would put in state law an executive order issued by Kelly requiring an annual report on educational outcomes of foster-care students.