Monday, December 22, 2014

Funding fix courts new controversy

By DYLAN LYSEN and By DOUG CARDER, Herald Staff Writers | 4/7/2014

School districts across the state will receive the funding the Kansas Supreme Court ruled they deserve, but the Legislature’s method to increase the funding came with a few controversial elements.

After a long week of late-night discussions, the funding fix now only needs Gov. Sam Brownback’s signature to become law.

School districts across the state will receive the funding the Kansas Supreme Court ruled they deserve, but the Legislature’s method to increase the funding came with a few controversial elements.

After a long week of late-night discussions, the funding fix now only needs Gov. Sam Brownback’s signature to become law.

House Bill 2506 — aimed at satisfying a court-mandated change to the state’s education funding mix, which previously left a gap for poor school districts — narrowly passed the Kansas House and the Senate this weekend. Though the regular legislative session was supposed to end Friday, lawmakers worked another two days to finish arguably the most important measure of the session.

In addition to allocating $129 million more to Kansas school districts, the bill eliminates teacher’s due process rights, includes cuts to property taxes for families who use private or home school education and allows tax breaks for corporations that donate funds for education scholarships, among other components.

The state Senate voted to pass the compromise bill 22-16, followed by a 63-57 vote in the House. Among the measure’s supporters were state Sen. Caryn Tyson, R-Parker, and state Rep. Kevin Jones, R-Wellsville, who voted to approve the bill. State Rep. Blaine Finch, R-Ottawa, voted against it.

Brownback lauded the legislation after the bill passed the House.

“The school finance bill passed by the Kansas legislature today fully complies with, and indeed exceeds, the requirements of the recent Kansas Supreme Court ruling for funding schools and providing equity,” the governor said. “House Bill 2506 increases funding to Kansas schools by $73 million and includes $78 million of property tax relief. The bill ensures that taxpayer dollars are spent efficiently, putting money in the classrooms to help teachers teach and students learn.”

The Kansas National Education Agency strongly opposed the bill, criticizing lawmakers who allowed it to reach Brownback’s desk.

“Those very groups who speak of government transparency and a support for Kansas children chose the wee hours of the night on a weekend to slip policy amendments into this bill,” the education agency said in a news release. “Under the cover of darkness, they thought Kansas teachers would simply ‘go quietly into that good night.’ They didn’t. Over 500 teachers from throughout the state took up the cause and were joined by hundreds of other supporters in the statehouse.”

Legislators’ look

State Sen. Tyson voted for the bill because all 17 school districts in Kansas Senate District 12 would receive some sort of property tax relief, she said, with the exception of the Osawatomie school district, which she consulted before the vote, she said. As for teachers’ due process rights, the first-term state senator said she has several family members who are teachers in Kansas who were not upset about losing the rights.

“All of us at our jobs have rights as employees and teachers have those same rights,” Tyson said. “It cuts both ways. I’ve got family members and friends that are teachers. All of them that I talked to before the bill didn’t have a problem with that being in the bill.”

But the unusual process of crafting the bill over the weekend didn’t sit well with Tyson, she said. The legislation passed was composed of several bills added together, she said. Those components should have been split up and voted on separately, she said.

“We should be voting on each bill on its own, and I think a majority of people would like to see that,” Tyson said. “This time of the year, as a legislator, you have to decide does the good in the bill outweigh the poor legislation in it, and they know that and use it as a tactic.”

Along with Tyson’s criticism of how the bill was crafted, State Rep. Finch said late-night work on the legislation was detrimental to the overall process.

“I think people have had enough of us passing legislation in the middle of the night and then finding out what it does,” Finch said. “If I can’t be assured a proposed policy has been properly vetted through the legislative process and is in the best interest of the people I represent, I will vote no every time.”

Finch voted for the original version of the House bill, which passed Friday with 91 votes and the endorsement from the governor, he said, before the Senate added amendments to the bill that affected more than the financial future of school districts. He said the corporate educational tax credit scholarship provision of the bill was unnecessary because corporations already have the ability to obtain a tax credit through 501(c)(3)s when they contribute to scholarships.

“The bill [adopted Sunday] took more money out of classrooms than the House bill, and put more money into corporations for scholarship tax credits,” Finch said. “It will spend $10 million in tax money to subsidize what corporations can already do and get a tax credit for.”

In addressing concerns about the removal of due process for teachers, state Rep. Jones said using the term “due process” instead of “tenure” was incorrect. Due process will happen in Kansas regardless, he said, but the related component of the bill will remove tenure from Kansas schools and stop protecting bad teachers.

“For any readers it’s obviously slanted against my vote, because it’s not about due process. It’s about tenure,” Jones said. “The whole point is that, and having been on a school board and having been around other people who have been teachers and administrators, the actual tenure portion of it can really be destructive to students.”

With his experience serving on the Wellsville school board, Jones said, he understood how difficult it is for school districts to fire bad teachers if they have received tenure, he said. He said the process could take up to two years, which hurts student learning.

“Due process, when it comes to tenure, the longevity portion is dangerous,” Jones said. “The idea is to bring good teachers to the top, and to not protect bad teachers.”

View from schools

While many teachers across the state think the Legislature has taken a toll on their profession, administrators are happy to receive more funding for their school districts. Jeanne Stroh, Ottawa school superintendent, said it looked last week like the school district was going to lose money in its transportation aid funding to help offset the cost it would take to replenish capital outlay.

“Overall, people are pleased with the equalization,” Stroh said. “It does look like, particularly with our capital outlay, we have made some good gains.”

The legislation passed this weekend amounted to a messy bill, she said, noting Monday afternoon she had not yet spoken to teachers who might have been upset by the due process rights removal. When the Legislature reconvenes later this month, she said, some controversial portions of the bill could be changed.

“There might be some cleaning up of those things,” Stroh said.

Megan Morris, president of the Ottawa Education Association and first-grade teacher at Lincoln Elementary School, said the due process decision by the Legislature was a “devastating blow” to the integrity of public education. Such rights exist to allow protection for teachers so they may do their jobs fairly and without fear, she said.

“Teachers should be able to make educated decisions on what is best for their students without worrying about pleasing outside parties while doing it,” Morris said. “That can no longer happen. As a teacher, I am now forced to worry about what others will think every time I assess a student, discipline a student, and fight for the rights of a student.”

Bob Fluke, Franklin County Republican Central Committee Chairman and a math teacher at Ottawa Middle School, said he doesn’t understand why a bill with so much importance to the state was rushed through the weekend before the regular session ended. He also questioned why due process rights even were included in a bill addressing education funding.

“Why did they, first of all, speed it through on a weekend when not a lot of people knew it?” Fluke said. “Couldn’t they have come back and really looked at it?”

Due process rights have been a part of Kansas education since 1957, and it didn’t just become a bad thing in the past week, Fluke said. He understands legislators make the argument that removing the due process rights will allow for administrations to easily dismiss bad teachers, he said, but the issue could have been addressed without removing the rights completely.

“I don’t want any bad teachers in the profession, obviously I don’t think anyone does. But at the same time, I don’t want any teachers wrongfully attacked,” Fluke said. “I think administrators need to make sure they have their ducks in a row, and they should be able to release a teacher simply because they aren’t good. It takes a little bit of time, but they need to make sure their teachers on their staff give the best education to their students. If it takes time, so be it.”

Darrell McCune, music education director for West Franklin school district, spent his weekend in less than relaxing terms by convening with the teachers from across the state who traveled to Topeka. McCune said he reached Topeka Friday and participated in a conference for Kansas National Education Agency, which turned into an impromptu rally. He said he opposed the Legislature’s methods of adding components to the bill late at night that did not come out of committee hearings.

“It’s a really, really bad bill,” McCune said. “That kind of tactic is really despicable in my opinion.”

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