By MARK TALLMAN
The 2021 Legislative session has started with scores of new members, a new slate of Senate leaders from both parties, and unprecedented procedural changes due to the COVID-19 pandemic.
As the 2021 legislative session got under way, I spent Monday evening visiting with public school advocates and thought I would share my thoughts on what will be the big questions during the session on education.
The answers to these questions could drastically alter the state of education in Kansas for years to come. These questions will be answered in part by how school leaders and supporters share their opinions and information with their legislators. If you are not sure who your legislators are, or how to contact them, you can get information from the Legislature’s website, kslegislature.org.
How will lawmakers respond to the ways public schools have handled the pandemic?
Local school boards have had broad powers since Governor Laura Kelly’s order to close schools last Spring expired, the Kansas State Board of Education blocked her proposal to delay the opening of in person learning for school until after Labor Day, and the Legislature gave counties authority to opt out of executive orders.
As a result, there has been a wide range of actions by local districts on when to operate with onsite, in person activities or using hybrid or remote only plans for learning, support services and student activities; often attempting to follow state or local health department guidelines and use district or county specific data for decisions.
However, these choices have left some frustrated that students have been required to stay home for remote learning, with concerns over significant academic and economic cost. Yet others have felt schools moved too quickly to open or reopen and failed to follow health guidelines. In some cases, districts have been unable to operate onsite because of widespread staff and student illness or quarantine.
The issue is whether the Legislature will try to place new requirements or restrictions on school operations.
How will the current economic recession and state budget issues impact school finance?
Following the 2008-09 Great Recession, Kansas cut funding for education and other programs, followed by another round of cuts when federal stimulus funding expired. Although the state economy began to recover, the Legislature and Governor approved deep state income tax cuts, further limiting school funding and keeping total aid for education below the rate of inflation from 2009 to 2017.
The Kansas Supreme Court made a series of rulings in the Gannon case that the Legislature was failing to fund its own equalization formulas for school funding and its own studies of adequate funding to meet state outcomes. The Court and Legislature agreed on a plan to raise base operating budgets back to the inflation-adjusted 2009 level by 2023.
November state revenue estimates indicate a $150 million deficit in the state general fund next year. Governor Laura Kelly will propose a budget plan on Wednesday. It is expected to maintain the commitment to the Gannon plan. But some Legislators may push for spending cuts to allow a variety of tax cuts that could make it more difficult to fund the school finance law. They will likely ask about possible savings as schools have been closed and enrollment dropped about three percent, as well as the impact of federal aid to schools. School leaders will note the significantly higher school costs for COVID mitigation, expanded technology for remote learning, on-going meal service, higher substitute pay and leave costs and other factors.
How much local control will the Legislature support for education?
Even aside from COVID emergency issues, the Legislature will certainly consider a long list of proposals for what school districts can do, can't do or must do, reflecting the concerns of patrons, legislators and other organizations.
Some proposals will probably address the subject of recent legislative studies, like cash balances, bilingual and at-risk weightings, and students in foster care. Others will address school district courses and programs, like civics education and bullying prevention. In each case the debate will be whether new statewide requirements will yield better outcomes than decisions made by local elected officials.
Will the state expand subsidies for private education?
The combination of some lawmakers who are more skeptical of public schools and frustration on the part of some parents over remote learning will likely lead to legislative consideration of bills to use tax dollars to send students to private schools.
The state already has a program providing tax credits for contributions to scholarships for a limited group of students to pay for private school tuition. Look for efforts to expand eligibility for that program and other ways to aid not outside or traditional public schools.
However, previous proposals in Kansas and other states allow participating private schools to be selective in their enrollment, policies and programs, while public schools must continue to serve the students other schools are unwilling or unable to serve. Public school advocates fear these plans could lead to a “two tier” education system, contrary to the aspirations of public education.
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Mark Tallman is the associate executive director for advocacy for the Kansas Association of School Boards.