Smart. Sharp. Funny. Fearless.
Saturday, December 3, 2016

By Bryan Lowry, The Wichita Eagle

Kansas Gov. Sam Brownback signed a school finance bill Monday that will send millions of dollars to schools but also end mandatory due-process hearings before experienced teachers can be fired.

“This is a win for Kansas students. This is a win for parents. … And it’s a win for property taxpayers,” Brownback said before signing the bill. “This is some of the most significant reforms we’ve seen for several years in the state.”

The bill is the Legislature’s response to a state Supreme Court order to fix inequities in funding between school districts before July 1. It allocates $129 million to close gaps in the capital-outlay fund and the local-option budget fund, which is based on local property taxes.

The bill narrowly passed the Legislature April 6 after two days of debate. It ties the court-ordered funding to a several policy changes.

The most hotly contested section of the new law will end mandatory due-process hearings before teachers with three or more years of experience can be fired by school districts.

Republican supporters say that will improve teacher quality. Opponents say it will enable administrators to unfairly target teachers for a variety of reasons.

The bill will also relax licensing requirements to allow districts to hire people without teacher training to serve as teachers in the math, engineering, science, technology, finance and accounting. Districts could hire any applicant who has a bachelor’s degree and at least five years’ work experience in one of those fields.

“What if you can bring a retired heart doctor into the classroom to teach biology now, which you couldn’t before? And what can that teacher do and inspire and instruct that you couldn’t do before?” Brownback said.

The bill also creates a tax break for corporations that donate to private school scholarship funds for low-income and special-needs students. That could cost the state up to $10 million a year. Brownback said the provision will enable poor children to chase their dreams. Opponents have criticized the prospect of public money going to for-profit corporations to pay for tuition at private schools.

The bill was strongly opposed by the Kansas National Education Association for tying the funding to what some say are unvetted policy changes. The union contends that due-process hearings do not protect bad teachers, but instead protect good teachers from being fired if they clash with administrators while advocating for students.

“He’s going to cause some serious problems for teachers who advocate for their students. He’s going to take $10 million and throw it unaccredited private schools,” said Mark Desetti, the union’s legislative director. “The policy pieces in this bill are poisonous to Kansas public schools and if he signs it he takes ownership of it, I guess is all I have to say.”

House Minority Leader Paul Davis, Brownback’s main challenger in the November election, denounced the governor’s role in the legislation.

Davis, a Democrat, wanted the governor to veto the bill and ask his legislative allies to write a “clean” finance bill without policy changes inserted by conservative Republicans.

“Gov. Brownback had a simple job to do: fund our schools,” Davis said in an email. “I proposed a solution within a week of the Kansas Supreme Court ruling to do just that and Sam Brownback rejected it. And while the governor was nowhere to be found during the education debate, his allies tied unpopular, partisan policies to the essential dollars for our classrooms.”

Photo of Department of Education via Wikimedia Commons