By NOAH TABORDA
TOPEKA — Kansas Republican legislators from the House and Senate remain largely divided on several proposed budget and policy elements of K-12 public education in the state.
Members of the House K-12 Education Budget Committee and the Senate Education Committee met Tuesday to negotiate elements of House Bill 2119, a measure with wide-ranging impacts on education policy and the public school budget. The bill narrowly passed the House last week despite bipartisan concerns over several provisions.
Representatives expressed uneasiness around the Student Empowerment Act and asked that their concerns be ironed out when the two chambers met. The act would take the standard per-pupil aid normally given to public schools and place it into an education savings account for students designated as “at-risk” to use for private school tuition and other education-adjacent expenses.
The bill would also fully fund public education as requested in the governor’s budget for 2021 and 2022. In 2023, the measure would remove a funding formula provision giving additional budget weighting to students in districts with a high number of at-risk students per square mile.
While there are some provisions contained in the bill yet to be heard in the Senate committee — including the Student Empowerment Act — there is some overlap that should allow for a successful negotiation, said Sen. Molly Baumgardner, a Louisburg Republican and chairwoman of the Senate Education panel. Still, Baumgardner identified certain key aspects she would like to see included in the final package, including the Promise Act, which would provide postsecondary educational scholarships for certain two-year associate degrees and technical education programs.
“If we’re looking at something that is kind of a mega education bill, then we do have to absolutely be looking at the Promise Act and concurrent enrollment,” Baumgardner said. “We have such significant funding going for high density at-risk and at-risk for our schools and our kids. And so, we really do like the guardrails that we have in our Senate Bill 173. We’ll want to see some of those things.”
In a packed committee room with several stakeholders, members of the Senate committee received the initial recommendation on the bill from Rep. Kristey Williams, an Augusta Republican and chairwoman of the House panel. Williams recommended the full contents of the House bill be placed into the Senate bill.
The joint negotiation adjourned before any counter offers or decisions were made, but lawmakers will again gather Wednesday to continue deliberations. A concern that the Student Empowerment Act and a tax credit to benefit private schools would be stackable is among issues the joint panel is set to address.
Under the tax credit section, the bill would reimburse organizations that grant scholarships for private schools up to $8,000 in tax credits per student per year. The proposed measure would greatly expand eligibility for the program by removing a provision that students must be in the 100 worst-performing public schools and adding students eligible for free and reduced-price lunch.
“What if a student is in a private school, taking some classes in the public school because the private school cannot provide them, and the teacher or district recommends to the parent that that student is eligible,” said Rep. Valdenia Winn, D-Kansas City, Kansas. “Is there any language in the bill that would keep that student eligible?”
The revisor’s office confirmed if a student were enrolled in public school part-time and they qualify for free or reduced-price meals or at-risk services, the student would be eligible for these programs.
Another clause limiting funding for remote learners to that of virtual school — $5,000 — rather than the usual finance formula for in-person instruction raised some eyebrows among Democrats and public education advocates. The bill would define a “remotely enrolled student” as a student who, during a state of disaster declaration, attended classes remotely for more than 240 school term hours or more than 40 hours when no disaster has been declared.
Mark Tallman, of the Kansas Association of School Boards, said accountability for remote learning is understandable, but funding students as if they attend virtual school is not adequate. He said virtual schools are designed for students who seldom attend in person.
“It seems to us that this is reacting against concerns about this pandemic but could shut other flexibility for students when we’re looking at school redesign, those kinds of things,” Tallman said. One of the things that I think districts are trying to experiment with is to say, if you’ve got a child who can be successful … in a different environment, and if we can find ways to put in good accountability, why shouldn’t we be able to do that?”
A second meeting of the two chambers to reconcile differences between a House Bill 2397 proposing a 2% cut across all state departments, including K-12 education, and Senate Bill 267, which puts off allocating $570 million in K-12 funding until May, also took place Tuesday.
Legislators remain divided on all but one provision of school funding issues and will work to find common ground Wednesday.