First Bell: A peek into next year’s legislative agenda for education

If you want a peek into what Kansas lawmakers have in mind for education bills next session, I suggest checking out the agenda for the next Legislative Educational Planning Committee meeting.

That’s a kind of study committee, including both House and Senate members, that meets between sessions to study various issues held over from the last session. It also has authority to recommend bills for future consideration. Their next meeting is at 10 a.m. Tuesday, Nov. 13.

Although there is no guarantee that any of these items will move quickly, it’s probably safe to assume the committee wouldn’t be looking at them unless somebody was planning to do something.

Here are some of the discussion items, in no particular order:

Review of Governor’s 2012 Excellence in Education Act: What Passed and What Did Not Pass: That refers to Gov. Sam Brownback’s plan to overhaul the state school finance formula. The quick answer to the question posed here is that very little of it passed in 2012, except the part that enhanced funding for career and technical education.

The bulk of the bill, which would have limited future state funding at roughly the current level while giving local districts unlimited authority to raise local property taxes, was stymied in the Kansas Senate, which was controlled last year by a coalition of moderate Republicans and Democrats.

That all changed in the Republican primaries in August, when many of those moderate Republicans were defeated by conservative challengers. Among them was the chairwoman of the Senate Education Committee, Jean Schodorf of Wichita. The vice-chair, Sen. John Vratil of Leawood, did not run for re-election.

Many think the governor and his allies will try to re-introduce the plan in 2013. Of course, a lot could depend on the outcome of the school finance lawsuit now pending in Shawnee County District Court.

Review of Kansas’ Charter School Law Compared with Arizona: Rep. Owen Donohoe, R-Shawnee, asked to look at this at an earlier meeting. The idea of charter schools is that they operate within an existing public school, but may be managed by outside entities and may be exempt from many of the rules and regulations that apply to public schools. That can include anything from classroom hours to collective bargaining agreements.

Kansas law currently allows charter schools, but they must be approved by the local board of education, and any request for waiver from local or state regulations must be approved by either the local or state board of education.

Some legislators would like to see those rules relaxed to open the door for more charter schools, especially those run on contract by private companies.

An official with the Carpe Diem Charter School in Arizona will provide testimony via conference call.

Seclusion and Restraining Rules and Regulations Update: This is a hot-button issue that came up in 2012, but was set aside in order to give the State Department of Education a chance to address it through rules and regulations before the Legislature jumped in by passing new laws.

It centers on children with severe emotional and behavioral disorders such as autism and how classroom teachers handle situations when there are emotional outbursts in class.

Parents of some of those children recount horror stories of their children being wrestled to the ground, bound, or sometimes confined to seclusion rooms for extended periods of time. That can cause further harm to children who also suffer from separation anxiety.

But teachers and other school officials tell of how those emotional outbursts can threaten the physical safety of other students in the room. They say without the authority to use reasonable methods, their only choice may be to call law enforcement to have those students removed.

The State Board of Education has since adopted new guidelines requiring every district to spell out the procedures to be used, the training to be provided to school employees, a procedure for written notification of parents when seclusion and restraint are used, documentation of every seclusion or restraint incident, and a local dispute resolution process.

Dyslexia Education: This has been a pet issue of Sen. Steve Abrams, R-Arkansas City, who believes Kansas teachers need more training in how to work with students who have dyslexia, a developmental reading disorder. He also wants it included as a separate diagnosis that can qualify a student for special education services, and he has advocated for the use of specific strategies and therapies for treating it.

Special education experts counter that dyslexia is already included as part of a broader category of learning disabilities, and they have resisted calls for legislation to require training in, and specific treatments of, the disorder.

The committee will get a briefing on a teacher training program being pilot tested in Oklahoma, as well as teacher training in Kansas.

Kansas 2012 State Assessment Results: Deputy Education Commissioner Brad Neuenswander (pronounced NINE-swan-der) will brief the committee on the results of the 2012 assessments.

Those scores have raised concern around the state because, depending on whether you include Kansas City USD 500 in the group, they either show little improvement from last year, or declining improvement coupled with a widening achievement gap.

Secondary students in KCK (which has a high concentration of low-income and minority students) took a different test last year, the ACT Explore exams, which are considered more rigorous and, thus, result in lower scores overall.

Either way, though, it was the first time Kansas failed to show demonstrable improvement in test scores, and narrowing of the achievement gaps, since statewide testing began in 2001.