Education at the top of all Kansas agendas in 2013

Education officials in Lawrence and throughout the state are looking ahead to a year of monumental decisions that will be made at every level, from the schoolhouse to the statehouse, and even the courthouse.

The issues range from a $92.5 million bond issue to be decided by voters in April to the adoption of new science standards and implementation of the federal waiver from No Child Left Behind at the State Board of Education.

At the statehouse, Kansas lawmakers will grapple with school funding issues that were made all the more complicated by the passage of massive income tax cuts in 2012. But lawmakers may also look at host of hot-button policy issues, including one proposal to restrict collective bargaining rights of teachers.

Meanwhile, the entire state still awaits a judicial ruling that could come as early as this week in a multibillion dollar lawsuit challenging current school funding levels as unconstitutional — a ruling that will certainly be appealed to the Kansas Supreme Court no matter how the three-judge District Court panel rules.

Lawrence Public Schools

On April 2, voters in the Lawrence school district will go to the polls to decide on a $92.5 million bond proposal to fund a wide range of projects that would affect not just the buildings where students attend class, but also the way classes are conducted and how learning takes place.

“It’s certainly going to be a big year with lots of potential for change,” said Lawrence school board president Vanessa Sanburn.

Most of the proposed bond issue (about $71 million) would fund brick-and-mortar improvements at the district’s 14 elementary schools, with particular focus on the six older schools in central and east Lawrence — schools that were once targeted for closure or consolidation.

Another portion would fund districtwide technology improvements that could have far-reaching effects on the way classes are taught and learning takes place. District officials envision a high-capacity wireless broadband network that would usher in a new kind of “blended learning” model that combines direct student-teacher interaction with a wide array of online content.

In addition, district officials want to expand programs for career and technical education by launching new programs that would be offered in cooperation with area community colleges.

Supporters of the bond issue say that sweeping package of initiatives can all be accomplished without raising local property taxes. But there are skeptics who say that may not be possible, given the anticipated decline in assessed property valuations in Douglas County as well as anticipated cuts in general state aid for schools that could result from the recent tax cuts.

“Obviously there are implications with taxes at the state level and what the budget’s going to look like,” Sanburn said. “We have some clue of what that’s going to look like, but we have no definitive answers at all.

At the same time voters are deciding on the bond issue, they will also be electing three board members to new terms. So far, Bob Byers is the only incumbent who has announced plans to seek re-election.

Sanburn, whose seat is also up for election in 2013, has not decided whether she’ll seek another term. The other seat is currently held by Mark Bradford, who indicated earlier that he is leaning against running again.

Kansas Legislature

Funding for public schools accounts for roughly half of all general fund spending by the state of Kansas — roughly $3 billion a year out of a $6 billion general fund budget.

As a result, education funding is always one of the most contentious issues in any legislative session. But this year, it’s likely to be more contentious than most because the tax cuts enacted in 2012 are expected to take a huge bite out of future revenues.

“It puts a broadside in the budget, so we have to figure out how to patch that hole,” said State Sen. Tom Holland, D-Baldwin City, who serves as the ranking Democrat on the Senate Assessments and Taxation Committee.

“We know the numbers. We’re going to go from about a $500 million surplus (this year) to something like $200 million underwater (next year) and, according to Legislative Research, a budget deficit of $2.5 billion by 2018.”

Holland and other Democrats say they will push for restoring cuts totaling about 13 percent in base state aid for schools that have been enacted since the economic downturn began in 2008 and 2009.

So far, Gov. Sam Brownback, a Republican, has promised to “protect” education funding in the coming year, but details of his budget proposal won’t be known until his State of the State address in January.

Meanwhile, based on the work of interim legislative committees and a governor’s task force on school efficiency, as well as measures that have been introduced in previous sessions, lawmakers may look at a number of nonbudget policy issues in the coming session, including:

• Revising or narrowing collective bargaining rights for teachers.

• Charter schools and vouchers for private and parochial education.

• A law requiring students to be retained in third grade if they are unable to pass the state reading assessment.

• And possibly a constitutional amendment to redefine the legislature’s responsibility for providing suitable funding for education.

Kansas State Board of Education

While the Kansas Legislature is grappling with those issues, the Kansas State Board of Education is expected to have one of its busiest, and perhaps most controversial, years in recent memory.

“This will be the biggest year I’ve seen on the board,” said board member Carolyn Campbell, a Topeka Democrat whose district includes Lawrence and most of Douglas County. “The first four years I was on the board, by comparison, were just peaceful and quiet and dull compared to what all we have coming forth.”

The laundry list of items the board is scheduled to take up in 2013 begins with an issue that has long been highly controversial in Kansas: the adoption of new science curriculum standards.

Kansas is one of the lead states currently developing the Next Generation Science Standards, which will likely serve as a model for science standards around the country. But in Kansas, as well as in a few other states, science education is a hot-button issue that raises questions among religious conservatives about the teaching of evolution, as opposed to biblical explanations of creation.

The second and final draft of those standards is scheduled for public release the first week of January, and the state board could vote on adopting those standards by the spring.

But that’s only the beginning of the list of weighty items the state board will deal with in 2013. Others include:

Adoption of new history and government standards, which often includes heated debate over issues about multiculturalism and the importance given to minority groups in history lessons.

Implementation of the new Common Core standards for reading and math, as well as decisions about new state assessments on those standards that will be administered in the spring of 2014.

Adoption of a new evaluation system for teachers and administrators that will include grading them based on student growth and achievement.

Implementing other aspects of the federal waiver from No Child Left Behind, including a new method for holding schools and districts accountable for student progress.

And possible consideration of a new system for accrediting public schools in Kansas, overhauling or replacing the Quality Performance Accreditation system that has been in place since 1992.

School Finance Litigation

Finally, with state and local policymakers dealing with all of those issues, an even bigger question lies in the hands of a three-judge panel that will soon issue its ruling on whether current funding for public schools is unconstitutional.

That lawsuit, Gannon vs. Kansas, was filed in 2010 by a coalition of school districts that argue the cuts enacted since the economic downturn violate the state constitution’s requirement that the Legislature make “suitable provision for finance” of public schools.

The plaintiffs are essentially the same as those behind the last school finance case, Montoy vs. Kansas, which resulted in a landmark ruling by the state Supreme Court in 2005 ordering the Legislature to increase school funding.

The result was about $800 million a year in additional funding that was phased in over the next three years, virtually all of which was later wiped out by cuts enacted following the economic collapse of 2008.

Shawnee County District Judge Franklin Theis, the presiding judge in the case, indicated recently that a decision would be issued around the first of the year.

The ruling may not have an immediate impact in 2013 because it is likely to be appealed to the Kansas Supreme Court, regardless of which way the trial judges rule.

But in the long run, if the courts rule as they did in the Montoy case, it could have a profound impact in future years, not just for schools, but also for state tax policy and funding for all other services that compete with education for state dollars.