Unbelievable education bill

As you know, the Kansas Legislature is on their Spring break. Ostensibly, they have done the State's business, and are waiting for the Governor to act on proposed bills. Then they return for a short veto session to deal with what the Governor has done.

But this year, as in most previous years, the Legislature has not finished their work. When they return, several bills will still be in the balance, the expected ruling from the Courts on education equity will still hang over them, and, of course, new bills can still be introduced.

One bill was introduced in the last hours of the day before break, and is a curious case of extremist dreams and confusing policy choices in an election year. The bill, HB 2741, is an education bill, and aims to overhaul much of how education is run in Kansas. It was introduced by the chairs of education in the Legislature, Rep. Ron Highland (R) and Sen. Steve Abrams (R).

It is, in a word, incredible.

Perhaps, in an election year, Highland and Abrams are trying to appeal to their base voters. But while many extremists in the Legislature are backpedaling away from outlandish stances and the Governor's shadow, these two, with Legislative leadership behind them, seem to have planted their flag far to the right of crazy.

To wit, the bill replaces the block grant education finance scheme. Kudos to them for working to figure out the next step after the block grants. We humbly submit that this is not the winning solution, but good for them for doing some work. While everything, including the kitchen sink, is in this ninety-five page bill, there are a few specific provisions that make it unbelievable.  

Huge increase in property taxes

First, under the bill, school districts would be required to asses 35 mills of property tax, up from 20 mills. In addition, it would remove the limits on how much additional property tax a district could raise, subject to vote. Why such a huge increase? Because the bill shifts an enormous burden onto districts. In saving hundreds of millions of dollars, the state would no longer pay for food plans, extra-curricular activities (so no sports?), or administration costs. This would create a huge disparity between wealthy and poor districts. Nutrition is a critical component of being able to learn, and districts with poor populations have an inordinate need for food assistance. Instead of paying for a playground or a field trip or a secretary, they will be forced to use their meager property taxes simply on keeping their students from being hungry while trying to learn. Meanwhile, rich districts will be able to continue meeting those needs while also giving their students incredible learning opportunities with computers and facilities and athletics and enrichment activities.

Public money for private school

Second, the bill funds private schooling with no pretense at "scholarships" or "tax credits." No, this bill boldly proposes that parents should receive 70% of the cost to the State to educate a child to spend on whatever education they like, private or parochial, accredited or not, with no requirement for assessment or accountability. Depending on the district, it could amount to as much as eight thousand dollars. To be absolutely clear, we understand there are excellent private, parochial, and home schools in Kansas. But we adamantly refuse to condone public money spent on religious education, or on schools that are unaccountable to taxpayers. Accreditation is hard, but it is there to ensure that public money is not being thrown away on substandard education. The children receiving the education deserve that accountability.

Other measures

The bill also includes other extreme measures, including requiring all school employees to share a new high-deductible health plan, allowing the state to target unspent district cash balances, and making it more difficult to sue the state for education issues (sure to be a winner among the much stymied extremists tired of court battles).

How likely is this to pass?

This bill is, almost certainly, unconstitutional. It shifts a huge burden for running a district on to property owners, which will clearly run afoul of the Kansas Constitution's requirement that every student have the same opportunity to succeed. And it does nothing to increase the funds going to education (in fact, it cuts almost $400 million from school funding), which makes it subject to any concerns the Courts might have as to how adequately Kansas children are being educated.

The authors know this, and are blindly forging ahead. So how likely is this bill to pass?

This year, it seems unlikely. Indications are that the Legislative leadership wants a quick veto session, and barring a (likely) extra session of the Legislature after the court rules, there just won't be enough time for a bill this complex and controversial to get through. But it is better to be safe, and prepared, than blindsided. And of course, something like it will surely raise its head in 2017.

All across Kansas, people are speaking out about this bill:

 Want a say? Vote, but #domorethanvote.

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