School plan dictates subjects, stymies suits

Critics berate proposal that discourages grievances

? In a preview of fights to come, lawmakers clashed Thursday over a proposal that would tell schools what they should teach and protect the state from future school finance lawsuits.

“The purpose of this bill is to restate and recodify what is already in existing law,” said state Sen. John Vratil, R-Leawood.

The proposal says the Legislature intends for school districts to give priority to expenditures necessary to provide 16 areas of study. Those areas are reading, writing, math, spelling, English, geography, history, government, citizenship, social science, science, computer technology, fine arts, foreign language, physical education and technical education.

It also states that in any legal challenge of the state’s school finance system, the courts must presume that state dollars have been appropriated to provide an education that complies with the Kansas Constitution.

Supporters said the measure was needed to give a clear definition of what schools must provide under state law and the Kansas Constitution.

But opponents said the proposal was a deceptive measure to make it more difficult for people to take their grievances about the school system to court. They also said because school districts already were providing instruction in the listed topics, the only reason for the would-be bill was to shield the state from lawsuits.

“To keep people from seeking a better education for their kids — to me this is one of the most distasteful things,” said Rep. Marti Crow, D-Leavenworth.

The debate occurred while the Kansas Supreme Court is considering a challenge to the state method of financing schools but before a select legislative committee on school finance.

A lower court has declared the $2.7 billion finance system unconstitutional because it falls about $1 billion short of what is needed for schools and allocates funds in a way that discriminates against minorities and students with disabilities. A decision on the case could be reached by the state Supreme Court as early as Oct. 15.

Sen. Dwayne Umbarger, R-Thayer, chairman of the school finance committee, said the panel would vote on Vratil’s proposal at a later, unspecified date. He said committee members first needed to hear from their local school districts on the proposal.

But Umbarger expressed disappointment with the measure.

“Are we here to address a suitable education, or are we here to get a position statement and litigation statement to protect the state of Kansas?” he asked.

A similar bill was approved during the last legislative session by the House but failed in the Senate.