Archive for Saturday, April 5, 2014

Tentative agreement reached on school finance

April 5, 2014, 10:49 p.m. Updated April 5, 2014, 10:49 p.m.

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— Kansas lawmakers continued working late into the night Saturday on a compromise school finance package that drew hundreds of teachers to the Statehouse in protest.

The teachers, who were already in Topeka for a meeting of the Kansas National Education Association, said they were spurred to action by a provision of the bill that would eliminate teacher tenure in Kansas — a law that entitles veteran teachers to an administrative due process hearing before they can be terminated.

"If you are an older teacher and possibly have a higher salary, you could be replaced with a younger teacher who doesn't have as high a salary," said Ginny Williamson, of Lawrence, who works as an autism specialist with the Olathe school district.

The agreement would provide an estimated $129 million in aid that mainly targets less wealthy districts, a response to the recent Kansas Supreme Court ruling in a school finance lawsuit. The Lawrence school district would receive about $1 million of that money.

It also includes an across-the-board increase in state funding local option budgets, which could produce as much as $475,000 in additional money for Lawrence.

But the bill also contains policy measures that conservative Republicans in the Senate insisted remain part of the bill. Although they agreed to drop one of the more controversial measures, cutting off funding to implement the Common Core standards in reading and math, the compromise bill would retain the elimination of teacher tenure, as well as two forms of indirect public funding for private, parochial and home schools.

Conservatives added the tenure provision on the Senate floor Thursday, arguing that the guaranty of due process hearings makes it too difficult for school administrators to fire ineffective teachers.

"This is something that relates to the effectiveness of our teachers," said Sen. Julia Lynn, R-Olathe, during floor debate Thursday night. "The thing we need to keep in mind, if a school is going to fire a teacher for cause, then we're really protecting the kids, not the teacher. We're putting the education of our kids ahead of the status quo if a teacher is not effective."

But Senate Minority Leader Anthony Hensley, D-Topeka, said it the tenure provision was a deal-breaker for Democrats.

"Teachers will become at-will employees, basically, because they could be fired for all kinds of reasons," Hensley said.

Thomas Witt, executive director of the Kansas Equality Coalition, a gay rights organization, said the provision would open the door to discrimination against gay and lesbian teachers.

“I personally know of teachers who've been threatened with being fired," Witt said. "And the only reason they were threatened is because they were gay, and they only reason they kept their jobs was because they had due process rights and the administrator couldn't prove they were bad teachers.”

On Friday, the House had passed its own version of a school finance bill with strong bipartisan support. But it was unclear Saturday night whether the compromise bill could pass.

In addition to the tenure provision, the bill would provide two ways in which public money would be used indirectly to benefit non-public schools.

One is a tax credit for corporations that donate to scholarship funds that help low-income students or students from low-performing schools pay tuition at private and parochial schools.

The other is a property tax credit for real estate owners who either home-school their children or pay tuition to send them to private school. The credit would be $1,000 for the first child and $2,500 for multiple children. But it would not be available to property owners who send any of their children to a public school.

Sen. Ty Masterson, R-Andover, said he is hopeful the bill can pass, even though the Senate had backed away from many of its positions.

"I've done the best I can to negotiate, and I'm hopeful I'll get 21 (votes) for it," Masterson said, referring to the minimum number of votes required in the Senate.

But many in the Statehouse suggested Republican leaders were privately hoping the bill would fail in the House because that might then force the Senate to accept the original House bill, enabling the Legislature to adjourn. Lawmakers were supposed to adjourn the regular session on Friday.

Meanwhile, House Democrats said they had no intention of supporting the bill.

"This isn't a 'no' vote. It's a 'hell no' vote," said Rep. Jim Ward, D-Wichita.

Scott Rothschild contributed to this story.

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