Rep. Nick Hoheisel said an amendment bringing Kansas toward 92% funding of special education would help mitigate many issues that special education programs, like the one attended by his daughter, who has autism, face on a daily basis. (Sherman Smith/Kansas Reflector)
TOPEKA — Kansas representatives went back and forth on an amendment Tuesday, ultimately rejecting an opportunity to fund state special education at the long-desired 92% mark.
Public schools in Kansas cover the costs of special education out of their operational budgets and apply for reimbursement from the amount the Legislature appropriates for that year. State law provides that Kansas should pay 92% of excess costs of special education, but there is no enforcement mechanism or penalty should the Legislature do otherwise.
In recent years, per the Gannon school finance plan, the legislature has added $7.5 million each year, bringing the proposal for 2022 to $520,380,818 or about 70%. While funding has increased each year, special education advocates argue that costs have also increased.
Rep. Jarrod Ousley, D-Merriam, proposed adding $68 million in funding, part of a plan to bring the funding to 92%, which the body approved narrowly, 58 to 54. Rep Nick Hoheisel, a Wichita Republican who has a daughter with autism, said the state needs to do better by Kansas students in special education programs.
“I see every day the issues that our special education and IDD community face within the schools,” Hoheisel said. “I’m all for increasing education spending, but every year I feel like we haven’t done enough for our special education community.”
But minutes later, Republican representatives brought a motion to reconsider.
“School districts have seen increases over the past several years and still have more increases to come,” said Speaker Pro Tem Blaine Finch. “There is no prohibition against using any of that additional money … for special ed programs.”
Ousley urged legislators to maintain the amendment to a larger bill that combines the state’s education budget and several policy issues. He said the state was unfairly leaving public schools with another unfunded mandate and was quickly headed toward a 65% funding rate in the coming years if it did nothing.
However, after prodding by Finch, an Ottawa Republican, representatives rejected the amendment 50 to 70.
“If you guys don’t want to follow that 92% statute, somebody could bring a bill to amend or repeal that, and we can quit ignoring it every year,” Ousley said. “Otherwise, we’re doing our districts a disservice by continuing to require the need without the funding.”
The House eventually gave the bill approval 76 to 46. The bill appears to lack sufficient support to override a veto should Gov. Laura Kelly choose to do so.
The bill primarily fully funds the governor’s budget proposal to implement the Gannon school finance plan, but it contains several more controversial provisions.
Included is a requirement that Department of Education establish a fee fund to be paid into by districts for a $4 million contract. School districts with at least half of students grades 7 through 12 in the bottom half of state assessments would be required to implement a virtual learning program. A no-bid contract was originally awarded to the Florida-based company Math Nation, but an amendment removed the requirement to allow other vendors to compete in the bidding process.
However, legislators supporting the amendment could not say for certain if there were other vendors besides Math Nation that could meet the requirements of the bill.
“There was discussion about a program called Excel and another one called Khan Academy,” said Rep. Stephen Owens, R-Hesston. “However, math nation was very specific in what it could accomplish.”
Rep. Valdenia Winn, a Kansas City Democrat, did not buy that the amendment would change anything. She also took issue with an amendment in which schools are only charged a fee for students who aren’t proficient. Proponents of the change said this would incentivize better performance, but Winn said this would only penalize schools that need the money most.
“There’s some built-in inequity,” Winn said. “If you have students who are proficient, those districts can use the program without paying for it, while the poor, underperforming districts who need it must pay for it.”
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