Brownback signs school funding bill

4/21/2014

TOPEKA (AP) — Kansas Gov. Sam Brownback signed a school funding bill Monday that increases aid for poor districts in order to satisfy a portion of a state Supreme Court ruling and also ends the state's mandate for teacher tenure.

TOPEKA (AP) — Kansas Gov. Sam Brownback signed a school funding bill Monday that increases aid for poor districts in order to satisfy a portion of a state Supreme Court ruling and also ends the state's mandate for teacher tenure.

The Republican governor said the bill was significant because it provided at least $129 million in aid to poor districts to satisfy the March 7 Kansas Supreme Court order to address unconstitutional gaps in funding between poor districts and wealthier ones. The net effect means some districts will receive $78 million in property tax relief, with the remainder being available for classroom instruction.

"This is a good bill," Brownback said. "This is a win for Kansas students. It is a win for parents of students. It is a win for property tax payers."

Legislators approved the bill on April 6. It now goes back to a three-judge panel in Shawnee County District Court for review. If the spending increase is deemed enough to satisfy the court's ruling, the money would be available to schools in the fall academic term.

The district court must still decide whether overall state school spending, currently more than $3 billion, meets the constitutional requirements for an adequate education. It had ruled that overall state funding was inadequate, but the Supreme Court said it used the wrong standard to determine the degree to which more money was needed.

The panel is required to use academic criteria developed in a 1989 Kentucky school finance case that set minimum goals for student learning. Kansas has adopted those seven criteria into state law; they include such skills as college or career readiness, communications, knowledge of economic, social and political systems, and an understanding of governmental processes. The three judges will weigh current spending against those standards to determine if more spending, if any, is required.

"This is just the opening act. It's a prelude to the real show," said John Robb, a Newton attorney representing school districts and parents who filed the lawsuit against the state in 2010.

Robb said while the court hasn't set a schedule for making its review, Robb expects that a final legal decision could be ready for legislative action perhaps by the 2015 legislative session, but most certainly by the 2016 session.

Legislators also included funding for public higher education, such as $25 million in bonding authority for construction of a new education building at the University of Kansas Medical Center.

The tenure issue has raised the ire of teachers, including some 400 members of the Kansas National Education Association clad in red T-shirts who packed the Statehouse on April 5 and 6 as legislators finished work on the bill. The teachers maintain that the changes in their due process mean that they could be fired with no reason given. They also say the changes could force many to stop speaking up and advocating on their students' behalf when challenging administrators' decisions.

Moments before Brownback signed the bill, Aaron Estabrook, a Manhattan school board member, presented Brownback with a petition signed by parents and teachers urging the governor to rethink his decision.

Brownback and House Speaker Ray Merrick, a Stilwell Republican, said the tenure provisions means that teachers will have to negotiate that status with local school districts instead of it being a statewide mandate.

Democrats continued their criticism of the tenure provision, saying it was a continuation of efforts by conservative Republicans and special interests to weaken teachers' unions.

"Once again, the governor has ignored thousands of Kansans who emailed their legislators, signed petitions, wrote letters to the editor and camped out over a weekend in the Capitol wanting the Legislature to pass a bill that simply dealt with school finance," Senate Minority Leader Anthony Hensley, a Topeka Democrat and teacher, said in a statement.

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