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Committees act on local elections; discuss teacher licensing

Topeka - A Senate committee today advanced a bill that would change the election cycle so that school board, city government and other municipal elections would be held in November of even-numbered years so they would coincide with state and federal elections.

But the panel agreed not to include a provision that had been considered earlier to make those races partisan elections.

Currently, those elections are held in April of odd-numbered years, with the primaries being held in February.

Supporters of the bill hope it will increase voter turnout, which is typically very low. In the municipal elections held last April in Douglas County, for example, voter turnout was only 16.58 percent of registered voters.

Opponents, however, say they're concerned that races for school boards and city commissions will get drowned out in the advertising blitzes that usually accompany races for president, governor and Congress.

The Lawrence school board has expressed vocal opposition to changing the election cycle. Among other things, members note that the bill would make their terms of office begin in January - in the middle of an academic year. School board terms currently begin and end on July 1, which is the start of the their fiscal year.

The bill started out as a Senate bill, but the committee put the contents of it into a House bill - a process known around the statehouse as a "gut-and-go." That means if it passes the full Senate, the House could simply concur in the Senate amendments without sending it through another round of committee hearings on the House side. The bill is now known as Senate Substitute for House Bill 2141.

Teacher licensure: Education lobby groups that normally agree on most issues that come through the statehouse took opposite sides today on a bill that would loosen some requirements for getting a teacher's license.

The Senate Ways and Means Committee held a hearing today on Senate Bill 430, which would exempt certain people from having to earn a college degree in education to obtain a license. Specifically, it would exempt:

• Those who already hold a license from another jurisdiction and who pass the required Praxis Series of tests.

• Those who hold an industry-recognized certificate in a technical profession and have at least five years of work experience in that field.

• And people who hold at least a bachelor's degree in science, technology, engineering or math - the so-called STEM fields - and have at least five years of related work experience.

Both the Kansas Association of School Boards and United School Administrators of Kansas testified in favor of the bill, saying they have long supported more flexibility in licensing teachers. KASB added, however, that it thinks teachers admitted to the profession through alternate routes should be subject to more frequent performance evaluations and should have to be rated as "effective" or better in order to keep teaching.

But the Kansas National Education Association, the state's largest teachers union, opposed the bill.

KNEA lobbyist Mark Desetti said the organization opposes any attempt to lower the standards for being admitted to the profession. While acknowledging there are shortages of qualified teachers in certain fields, and in certain parts of the state, he said the same is true for other professions, including doctors, but few people suggest lowering the standards to enter those fields.

The committee has not yet voted on whether to send the bill to the full Senate.

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Lawrence board opposes changing election cycles

Lawrence school board members indicated Monday night they plan to submit a joint written statement to a legislative committee opposing a bill that would change the election cycle for municipal elections.

Board member Shannon Kimball testified against House Bill 2227 Monday during a hearing before the House Elections Committee. It would change the date of city and school district elections from April of odd-numbered years to November of odd-numbered years.

It would also change the terms of office for school board members so that new terms would begin on Jan. 1 following an election. Under current law, board members' terms begin on July 1 following an election.

The bill was first introduced in the 2013 session. At that time, Kimball said, it also called for making city and school elections partisan races, although that provision has been deleted this year.

Before the start of the session, the school board adopted a legislative agenda that calls for continuation of non-partisan elections in the spring.

Board president Rick Ingram said he's concerned the language calling for partisan elections could be added back to the bill at any time.

"These things get added at the last minute," Ingram said. "I don't know many people who think we have too little partisanship in government."

Kimball said supporters of the bill hope it will increase voter turnout, which is typically very low in spring elections.

In last spring's elections, according to Douglas County voting records, only 16.58 percent of registered voters cast ballots in local city and school district elections, including the $92.5 million bond election in the Lawrence district.

But Kimball said passage of the bill would disrupt the work of school boards throughout the state because it would mean new terms would begin in the middle of an academic year - and in the middle of a budget year. They would also begin at about the same time most boards begin their superintendent evaluations and contract negotiations with teachers.

Although the committee hearing was held Monday, Kimball said the committee would accept written comments on the bill through the end of the business day Wednesday.

Rep. Scott Schwab, R-Olathe, who chairs the Elections Committee, has not yet announced when the panel might vote to advance the bill to the full House.

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ALEC-based charter school bill getting second chance

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.

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