Kansas House advances bills restoring teacher tenure rights, strengthening anti-bullying policies

Reps. Boog Highberger and Eileen Horn, both Lawrence Democrats, listen during debate on the House floor on a bill to restore teacher tenure rights that lawmakers repealed in 2014.

? The Kansas House gave first-round approval Wednesday to a bill that would restore teacher tenure rights, also known as due process rights, that prevent veteran teachers from being summarily fired or not renewed for the following year without just cause.

That law had been on the books for decades in Kansas until 2014 when lawmakers repealed it as part of a bill that also replaced the state’s then-existing school finance formula with a system of block grants, a system the Kansas Supreme Court later found unconstitutional.

“I remember the night it happened,” said Rep. Diana Dierks, R-Salina, speaking in favor of the bill. “At 3 o’clock in the morning, we had a gallery full of red-shirted teachers who were here for their (Kansas National Education Association) convention and conference. They were sitting up there (in the gallery) listening to us take away their one right that they have, and that was due process.”

Dierks and others argued that the 2014 repeal has contributed to the state’s growing teacher shortage. They also pointed to a 2016 report from a Blue Ribbon Task Force appointed by Education Commissioner Randy Watson that specifically recommended reinstating due process rules as a way to address the teacher shortage.

After the new law took effect, many local districts, including the Lawrence district, negotiated their own form of due process rules, although the Lawrence district’s policy is not identical to the old law.

Reps. Boog Highberger and Eileen Horn, both Lawrence Democrats, listen during debate on the House floor on a bill to restore teacher tenure rights that lawmakers repealed in 2014.

House Bill 2757 would provide that veteran teachers are entitled to a due process hearing before an independent hearing officer before they could be summarily fired or not renewed for a subsequent year.

It would apply to teachers with three or more years of experience within a school district. It would also apply to teachers with at least two years of experience if, before joining the district, that teacher worked for three or more years in another district.

It would not apply, however, to teachers who lose their jobs because their licenses have been revoked by the Kansas State Board of Education due to a felony conviction, drug conviction or other kinds of misconduct.

The House passed a similar bill during the 2017 session, but when the bill reached the Senate, its contents were stricken out and the bill was used as a shell for carrying various school finance proposals that were considered last year.

During debate Wednesday, supporters of the bill pushed back several proposed amendments, including one that many said was designed as a “poison pill” to kill the bill.

Rep. John Whitmer, R-Wichita, offered an amendment to extend the same due process rights to a long list of other public employees, including correctional officers, parole officers, game wardens, public sewer and water workers, social workers, garbage collectors, forestry officers and any public-sector employee covered by a union contract.

Whitmer argued that if the state was going to mandate due process rights for one group of public employees, it should mandate the same rights for all.

But supporters of the bill said its only chance of passing was as a clean bill dealing only with teachers. Whitmer’s amendment failed on a vote of 38-82.

The House voted to advance the bill to final action, 72-48, on an unrecorded voice vote.

The teacher tenure bill was one of two education-related bills the House debated Wednesday. It also voted to advance House Bill 2758, that would require school districts to publish their anti-bullying policies on their websites, including procedures for reporting those incidents and their implementation plans for training students and staff about the policies.

Final votes to pass both bills and send them to the Senate are scheduled for Thursday.