Lawmakers have agreed on a deal to fund Kansas schools. Here’s what you need to know.
KANSAS – Senate President Ty Masterson said Friday an agreement has been reached where Gov. Laura Kelly will sign a multi-billion-dollar school funding bill into law, following days of negotiations between top officials.
The bill is a necessary second act after conservatives pushed to separate public education funding from the state budget and tie it to a slate of school choice policies.
The move backfired after the sweeping and hotly debated proposal died in the Kansas Senate last month, prompting lawmakers to scramble back to the drawing board.
A final product was forged between House and Senate negotiators Thursday evening after days of closed-door negotiations. It passed both chambers Friday and head’s to the governor’s desk.
Kelly indicated her support for the deal in a statement, although she didn’t explicitly say she would sign the legislation.
“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,” Kelly said.
Masterson said he believes the final form is a needed compromise — although it still needs to clear the House and Senate.
“There are things I would have liked to have seen in there that are not,” Masterson told reporters Friday morning. “I think that is true for (the governor) and the House.”
The bill funds education at the levels requested by Kelly for the next two fiscal years, complying with a blueprint approved by the Kansas Supreme Court in 2019 as part of a years-long court battle over investment in public education.
School choice deal included in legislation
But the measure includes a key wish for Republicans: expanding the state’s school choice offerings.
Members initially wanted to create an education savings account program allowing students to use public dollars to fund tuition at private schools, among other potential uses.
But lobbying from school districts over concerns it would cut money flowing to public schools sunk the bill in a dramatic vote in the Kansas Senate.
Instead, legislators settled on another, less aggressive measure. This would center on an expansion of a state program that offers private businesses a tax credit for donations to bankroll private school scholarships of up to $8,000, rather than directly funding a student’s tuition.
Currently, only impoverished students at the state’s 100 lowest-performing public schools can use the program. Under the new language, children in grades K-8 at any school in Kansas receiving free and reduced-price lunch would be eligible.
The proposal does not divert any funds from public schools — a key criticism of the educational savings accounts. A $10 million cap on the total amount of tax credits remains.
Mark Tallman, lobbyist for the Kansas Association of School Boards, said there was still a philosophical concern with the proposal but that it was not as drastic as it could have been.
“There’s still likely to be a lot of concern about the fundamental idea of ‘should we be expanding aid to schools that don’t serve all kids’ — that is the fundamental issue it comes down to,” Tallman said. “But certainly this is a much less dramatic departure.”
Rep. Kristey Williams, R-Augusta, said legislators hadn’t given up on ramping up school choice. She predicted members would consider the educational savings account piece again in 2022.
“I think you’ll see them again,” said Williams, chairwoman of the House K-12 Budget Committee. “They are not going away. The needs of at-risk students are not going away. But this year we were not able to come to a larger, overall consensus.”
Districts encouraged to have in-person learning
The legislation also encourages schools to hold in-person instruction, although it provides several avenues for districts to have students work remotely if need be.
Under the bill, districts can allow individual students to work remotely for a limited period of time. For acts of God, districts can get a waiver for up to 240 hours of remote instruction and can appeal to the state Board of Education to allow more online learning if need be.
But there is a significant penalty if those protocols aren’t followed: districts would get less funding for students who receive extensive remote instruction.
“What we know is best is to have kids in the classroom and have that consistency,” said Sen. Molly Baumgartner, R-Louisburg. “Our families want to know what to expect next school year.”
Democrats objected vociferously to the original education bill and enlisted a cadre of moderate Republicans to boot. But Senate Minority Leader Dinah Sykes, D-Lenexa, said this was a better — albeit imperfect — effort.
“There are definitely pieces in it I don’t love,” Sykes said. “But, at the end of the day, we are fully funding schools. At the end of the day it was a compromise.”
The bill includes a grab bag of other education policy items.
That includes a provision requiring the Kansas Department of Education to use $10 million in federal COVID-19 aid for school safety grants and a mental health pilot, among other items.
The bill also expands the definition of students deemed at-risk by the state, allows private schools to take part in a program subsidizing fees for ACT tests and recommends school districts give bonuses to teachers, parents and district staff for their work during the COVID-19 pandemic.