The Kansas House and Senate Education Committees will be busy this week discussing data privacy, sex education, the Common Core standards and charter schools.
Concerns about data gathering and student privacy have been part of the conservative backlash against the Common Core standards, with many groups claiming falsely that the standards require the collection of massive amounts of personal data about students including, some have alleged, their families' religious and political affiliations.
In truth, there is no data-collection requirement in the Common Core standards. There is, however, an unrelated effort underway by the nonprofit organization inBloom — with support from the Bill and Melinda Gates Foundation — to collect and synthesize student data as a way to improve individualized learning.
The Kansas State Department of Education has never been part of that program, which appears to be sputtering anyway and is now down to only three participating states. And Education Commissioner Diane DeBacker has said repeatedly that Kansas will not collect any more data about students through its assessment program than it has been collecting for years. That mainly includes the student's name, age, grade, race, gender, socio-economic status if available, and scores on the tests.
Nevertheless, two bills are being discussed this week that would limit the department's authority to collect and disseminate personally identifiable student data.
Today, the House Education Committee conducts a hearing on House Bill 2606, the Student Data Accessibility, Transparency and Accountability Act, which would limit the department to using only "aggregate" data when reporting "to any federal agency, state or local agency outside the state of Kansas, or any other out-of-state organization or entity."
On Wednesday, the Senate Education Committee holds a hearing on Senate Bill 367, the "Student Data Privacy Act." It would prohibit schools from collecting any kind of "biometric data" about students without their parents' written consent.
On Tuesday, the House panel will hear testimony on House Bill 2620 which would essentially impose an "opt-in" policy for instruction in health and human sexuality. That means schools would be prohibited from providing instruction in that course, "unless written consent has been received from the parent or legal guardian of such student, clearly stating that such parent or legal guardian allows such student to participate in the health and human sexuality education class."
Kansas currently requires one unit of physical education and health for high school graduation, but families are allowed to "opt-out" if a physician certifies they should not participate, or if the family claims a moral or religious objection. Beyond that, however, local districts are allowed to set their own policies regarding health and human sexuality curriculum.
On Wednesday, the House panel hears testimony on House Bill 2621, nullifying the Common Core standards for reading and math, as well as the Next Generation Science Standards, and establishing an Advisory Council on Curriculum Content Standards. You can see our story from Sunday for more background on that bill.
And on Thursday, both panels will have a joint meeting to hear a presentation from Rick Ogston, founder and CEO of Ohio-based Carpe Diem Learning Systems, LLC, a private, for-profit charter school management company.
Kansas currently has one of the more restrictive charter school laws in the country. Charter schools here must be organized within the structure of a unified school district and must have the approval of both the local school board and state department of education.
But the Senate committee is considering Senate Bill 196, which would greatly expand charter schools by giving other entities authority to establish charter schools, including cities and counties, as well as public or private post-secondary institutions.
Education lobbyists at the Kansas Statehouse were surprised to hear Monday that there will be no changes in the makeup of the House Education Committee, where a bill to greatly expand the state's charter school law failed last year by a single vote.
Republican House Speaker Ray Merrick, R-Stilwell, announced a host of committee changes Monday, prompted mainly by a large turnover in House seats since the end of the 2013 session.
All told, Merrick shuffled 31 assignments on 18 committees, but none of them affecting the Education Committee, where Rep. Kasha Kelley, R-Arkansas City, will stay on as chairwoman, and Rep. Ward Cassidy, R-St. Francis, remains vice-chair.
House Democratic leaders also made no changes to their Education Committee assignments, which means Rep. Ed Trimmer of Winfield will remain the ranking minority member. No Lawrence-area House members serve on the committee.
The failure of the bill to advance out of committee came as a surprise to many because it had been a high priority issue for some GOP leaders, including Kelley.
Charter schools are generally thought of as publicly-funded private schools. They are often managed on contract by outside, for-profit companies, and in some states they are allowed to set their own administrative and employment policies, meaning they may not be required to bargain with teachers unions.
Kansas, however, has one of the most restrictive charter school laws in the country. Only public school districts can apply to open a charter school, and while they may managed by outside companies, they are ultimately governed by local school boards.
The Lawrence Virtual School is a charter school managed by K12, Inc., but it's governed by the Lawrence school board.
House Bill 2320 last year would have revamped that law allowing charter schools to be set up under the auspices of city or county governments, the Kansas Board of Regents, or the governing body of any public or private postsecondary institution.
Charter schools established under the law would have been exempt from most state laws and regulations that apply to other schools, including the requirement that they accept students who need special education services.
Lawrence schools are on spring break this week, a fact that sparked some fear in the newsroom that there wouldn't be much education news for a few days. But Kansas lawmakers appear to be picking up the slack.
Specifically, the Kansas Senate Education Committee worked through a pile of bills Monday, including one that would create new opportunities for establishing charter schools in Kansas.
Senate Bill 196, the Kansas Public Charter School Act, is nearly identical to a bill that the House Education Committee rejected last week. It's based on model legislation from the American Legislative Exchange Council, or ALEC.
ALEC is a conservative, free-market-oriented organization made up of legislators, corporations and foundations. It produces model legislation usually geared toward lowering taxes and reducing government regulation that has been introduced in statehouses around the country.
For those who aren't familiar with charter schools, they are a special type of school, usually set up within a public school district but operated independently, either by a private company, nonprofit organization or some other public entity. Most are exempt from some laws or regulations that govern traditional public schools.
Charter schools have been a favorite topic of conservatives for several years, for several reasons. Advocates tend to like the idea of injecting free-market competition into the public school system, breaking up what they see as a government monopoly on education funding. Charter schools also provide a testing ground for a fundamental free-market principle: the idea that removing the shackles of government regulations - including things like collective bargaining for teachers - will unleash innovative thinking and creative ideas that will improve education overall.
Critics, on the other hand, view charter schools skeptically. They say there is little evidence to suggest the schools perform any better than traditional schools when they deal with comparable student populations. And they fear that the charter school movement is really aimed at busting teachers' unions and channeling public education dollars to what are essentially private schools.
To date, Kansas has had a fairly limited charter school law. Public school districts are the only entities that can authorize a charter school. Many districts, including the ones in Lawrence and Topeka, have authorized their own. But outside organizations have to petition their local district and get permission to open one. And even then, the State Board of Education has the final say on approving the charters.
SB 196 would open up the process by giving the Kansas Board of Regents, cities and counties and the governing board of any public or private post-secondary institution the power to authorize a public charter school.
The State Board of Education would still have the final word in granting a charter, but the bill would greatly limit the board's discretion in making that decision.
The nugget of the bill, though, lies in two other key provisions.
One would provide a 100 percent tax credit for private contributions to a public charter school. That means that for every dollar donated to a charter school, the state general fund would have one less dollar with which to fund education and other state services.
The other is an almost blanket exemption from any state laws or regulations governing public schools, except those related to public health and safety, civil rights and nondiscrimination and handicapped accessibility. There would be no requirement for the charter schools to recognize teachers' unions.
Last week, an almost identical bill failed to win passage in the House Education Committee. But the Senate Education Committee is now working on its own version. The Senate panel was expected to vote on the bill Monday, but that vote has been delayed until Tuesday.