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Education agenda: Here's what Kansas lawmakers have in mind for school districts and students

Republican Rep. Kristey Williams
Blaise Mesa
Kansas News Service
Republican Rep. Kristey Williams

A legislative committee on education offered a glimpse at what Kansas lawmakers could propose during the 2024 session. The Legislature hinted at changing the formula for funding special education and pushing more school choice measures.

When Kansas lawmakers convene at the Statehouse in January, their to-do list could include several measures that would affect public school districts and students.

A special committee on education, chaired by Republican Rep. Kristey Williams of Augusta, met over four days this month and offered a glimpse at what those proposals could be, including changing the way the state funds special education.

“Is anybody else looking deeply at the statutes, looking deeply at the process?” Williams said. “Or are we only going to be happy if we go ahead and pour more money on something that’s broken?”

Education officials have urged Kansas legislators to increase funding for special education. The Legislature does not meet the funding level called for in state law — 92% of special-education costs that are not covered by the federal government — so local school districts have had to pay the difference.

But some lawmakers said the funding formula itself is the problem, not the amount of money.

Williams said districts get money from local taxpayers that isn’t counted as part of their special-ed funding, as well as funds collected for virtual students. And she said districts have enough money in reserves to fund special-education services.

“Ultimately, the money is there,” she said.

Last session, lawmakers rejected Democratic Gov. Laura Kelly’s plan for an additional $72 million in special education funding. They approved about $7.5 million.

The Legislature also passed a law establishing a task force to study special education, but it has not met.

Here is a look at other education issues addressed during this month’s interim committee meeting:

Test scores

A report out this week from the Kansas Department of Education shows that student test scores have started to rebound after dropping during the pandemic.

Every grade level improved on the math assessment, and six of seven scored higher overall in English Language Arts.

Republican Sen. Renee Erickson of Wichita praised educators for the progress.

“That is a great step in the right direction, and kudos to our teachers and our students who made that achievement,” she said.

But lawmakers said Kansas students continue to underperform, with nearly half of eighth-graders and a third of fifth-graders scoring at the lowest level on state math tests.

Committee members also clashed with educators over the use of state assessments as a primary measuring stick.

David Smith, spokesman for the Shawnee Mission school district, said the annual tests are helpful, but not the best predictor of student achievement.

“I’ve never had, in my experience, anybody come to me and say, ‘Well, I was applying for a job and they asked me what my scores were on the Kansas assessment,’” Smith said. “Our kids focus on the things that are meaningful for them.”

Williams said the tests given to students every spring are the best way to judge how students and schools measure up, year to year, against state standards for reading, writing, math and science.

“It isn’t the end-all, be-all, but it is important for us to understand,” she said.

Funding for at-risk students

A report this summer from the Kansas Legislative Post Audit found that many school districts haven’t followed guidelines for how they use funds earmarked for students at the highest risk of failing academically.

The committee reviewed the audit, and some lawmakers hinted that they could seek punitive measures against districts that misuse the funds. Several said it should factor into decisions about accreditation.

The state distributed about $400 million in weighted funding for at-risk students during the 2021-22 school year. The audit showed some districts used the money to pay teacher salaries or for general programs. Some bought televisions and other items forbidden by state law.

“As more money is going into the system, specifically for the students that need it most, something is not working,” Williams said. “And the outcomes are declining.”

State law requires programs for at-risk students to be backed by five years of research. Auditors said that’s an unreasonable standard, and education leaders said they plan to revise the list of eligible programs before the 2024-25 school year.

School choice

Republicans said they’ll continue to push for measures that make it easier for families to send their children to private schools using public tax dollars.

A bill approved last session but vetoed by the governor would give qualifying families about $5,000 of tax money to use toward the cost of private school tuition or homeschooling.

Williams invited several school choice advocates to speak to the committee, including representatives of the Kansas Policy Institute and Patrick Wolf, a University of Arkansas professor who studies school choice and has supported vouchers.

“He gave us the whole link that showed if you want to help teachers and students and parents, you give them choice,” Williams said. “If we’re going to really help everyone … it is a tool in the toolbox.”

Opponents of voucher measures, including public school superintendents, teachers unions and the Kansas State Board of Education, say they undermine public schools. They say there’s no evidence that voucher programs work or that students do better academically in private schools.

School property

Kansas lawmakers passed a law last session that gives lawmakers the first right to purchase any school building that a school district decides to shut down. The provision, authored by Republican Sen. Molly Baumgardner, was partly in response to the controversial closing of Wilson High School.

But the law left some districts unable to sell property, so lawmakers said they plan to craft changes to fix it.

Republican Sen. Beverly Gossage said Panasonic tried to buy land for a battery plant from the DeSoto school district, but the deal fell through because the new law requires districts to wait for a decision from the Legislature.

“We don’t want to have situations like that, where it makes sense for everybody but it couldn’t be done because we were not in session,” Gossage said.

Student behavior

Kansas educators said unruly student behavior continues to be one of their biggest challenges, and some lawmakers said they want to explore ways to help.

Sen. Chase Blasi, a Wichita Republican, suggested banning cell phones and getting tougher on students who misbehave.

“It’s time for our state to say that is unacceptable in our classrooms, and we are going to put our foot down,” he said. “I would like to see us work with educators on how we formulate a plan of discipline, instead of just accepting that it's a problem.”

School leaders in Wichita, the state’s largest district, voted earlier this year to tighten their rules on cell phones in class. Middle school students can use cell phones only with permission from an administrator. High school students can use them only before or after school, during passing periods, and at lunch.

Suzanne Perez reports on education for KMUW in Wichita and the Kansas News Service. You can follow her on Twitter @SuzPerezICT.

The Kansas News Service is a collaboration of KMUW, KCUR, Kansas Public Radio and High Plains Public Radio focused on health, the social determinants of health and their connection to public policy.

Kansas News Service stories and photos may be republished by news media at no cost with proper attribution and a link to ksnewsservice.org.

Suzanne Perez is a longtime journalist covering education and general news for KMUW and the Kansas News Service. Suzanne reviews new books for KMUW and is the co-host with Beth Golay of the Books & Whatnot podcast. Follow her on Twitter @SuzPerezICT.
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