Rep. Kristey Williams, an August Republican, defended a House committee's overhaul of Senate Bill 113, which bundled K-12 public school funding with a series of controversial policy changes. (Sherman Smith/Kansas Reflector)
TOPEKA — Complex details of the Kansas House’s plan for state funding of K-12 education were woven into contents of nine other bills that included policy allowing private school students to take part in extracurricular activities at public schools and expanding opportunities for more than two-dozen wealthy districts to raise taxes to increase salaries of teachers.
House Republicans swarmed to endorse the bundled bill, approved Thursday on a vote of 75-48, despite a GOP colleague’s plea to delay elimination of a special category of funding for at-risk students.
Democrats in the House raised a series of objections, including a challenge to exclusion of nearly $600 million special education programs and deletion of authority for school districts to buy Narcan in response to the growing reality of student drug overdoses.
Augusta Republican Rep. Kristey Williams, who recently alarmed constituents in her district by pushing a voucher-like bill to spend tax dollars on private school students, said the overhauled version of Senate Bill 113 demonstrated the House’s commitment to K-12 public education.
Williams said state’s per-pupil spending on public schools increased 135% in the past two decades, well above the 67% increase in the Midwest consumer price index during the period. She didn’t mention Kansas Supreme Court opinions that found state funding of public education violated the Kansas Constitution and prompted spending increases adopted by state’s legislators and governors.
“The Legislature maintains the tradition of coupling constitutional funding with policy to ensure ongoing accountability, ongoing transparency and bipartisan efforts to expand educational opportunity for all Kansas students,” Williams said.
Rep. Brett Fairchild, R-St. John, said he voted against the bill with dozens of Democrats because it would increase K-12 spending by about $600 million over two years and required about $30 million in spending that required to meet expectations of the state Supreme Court.
“I don’t believe this level of spending is going to be sustainable over the long run,” he said. “Additionally, I disagree with the provision of the bill that authorizes school districts to pay school board members.”
Box of chocolates
Rep. Valdenia Winn, a Democrat from Kansas City, said she couldn’t support school finance legislation bundled with nine bills. She said some policy adjustments were a mistake and useful policy had been ignored.
“In the words of Forrest Gump, it’s like a box of chocolates. You never know what you’re going to get,” Winn said. “A lot of these provisions that were bundled never got a public hearing. These are empty wrappers that leave a nasty taste in my mouth.”
Winn objected at length to expansion of a state law allowing school districts with high residential property values to increase taxes to secure additional money for teacher salaries. She said the initiative left behind Kansas school districts with modest residential valuations. The original state law offered the property tax exception to 16 districts, but the new bill would elevate it to 27 districts.
Rep. Mari-Lynn Poskin, D-Leawood, twice failed to insert $592 million for special education into the bill. She objected to placement of appropriations for special education in Senate Bill 83, which narrowly passed the House and controversially included a voucher-like program for benefit of students in private schools and homeschools. That bill would set aside $5,000 annually for each student not enrolled in public schools.
“I want you to consider who this amendment is friendly to,” Poskin said. “It is friendly to the Kansas families who rely on special education services.”
The House deflected an amendment from Rep. William Clifford, R-Garden City, to extend for another year a statute providing $76 million in special financial assistance to districts with lots of at-risk students. The bill would phase out the aid in 2024, which could mean school district cuts of $2.5 million in Dodge City, $2.1 million in Garden City, $1.6 million in Liberal and $440,000 in Ulysses.
His amendment was blocked by a procedural rule in the House requiring that he propose a spending reduction equivalent to his desired spending increase.
Narcan for emergencies
Rep. Jason Probst, D-Hutchinson, lost a battle to amend the bill so districts could use a portion of state grants for school safety to acquire the prescription medicine Narcan to treat students experiencing a drug overdose. Williams, who successfully opposed Probst’s amendment, said the school safety money ought to be used to fortify buildings and the $20 per bottle cost of Narcan could get expensive.
“I would argue in some schools gun violence may not be the biggest threat to children. It may be opioids,” Probst said.
Under the House substitute for Senate Bill 113, elementary and secondary private school or homeschool students would be allowed to participate in Kansas State High School Activities Association teams offered at public schools. The nonpublic students would pay a basic activity fee to take part.
Rep. Jerry Stogsdill, D-Prairie Village, said he was concerned the provision was opposed by KSHSAA, the Kansas State Board of Education, the Kansas State Parent Teacher Association as well as an organization of independent schools and a group of school superintendents.
He said support came from the conservative political organizations Americans for Prosperity, Kansas Policy Institute and Kansas Family Voice.
“I would submit that the school boards, the parents, the PTAs, our teachers who oppose this bill probably have a better interest in all our students across Kansas than some of the proponents,” Stogsdill said.
Williams, addressing opposition by KSHSAA, said criticism often emerged from organizations “looking out more for the establishment, the bureaucracy and the structure rather than the individual student.”
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