Opposing 'legislative oversteps,' state education board says all options open if Gov. Laura Kelly signs bills
The Kansas State Board of Education will provide Gov. Laura Kelly with information and the board's standards for Kansas high school graduation but will stop short of formally asking Kelly to veto two bills the board considers to be legislative oversteps.
The board at noon Wednesday unanimously voted to have board member Janet Waugh, a Democrat from Kansas City representing District 1, meet with Kelly and provide that information later Wednesday afternoon.
Notably, the action to meet with Kelly and share Kansas graduation standards stops short of more concrete action or even a lawsuit, as has been previously hinted at by board members.
Several board members, including Ann Mah, D-Topeka, and Betty Arnold, D-Wichita, expressed concern that the board's action didn't go far enough in formally asking Kelly to oppose and veto two controversial bills, which board members have said infringe on their constitutional authority to set school curriculum standards.
But other board members, such as Ben Jones, R-Sterling, said they felt the action implicitly urges Kelly to oppose the legislation, and that including the board's full positions on the bills risked muddying their message.
In any case, board chairman Jim Porter, R-Fredonia, asked the board to unanimously approve the message as presented to send a clear message to Kelly on its stance.
The board's action on Wednesday follows a nearly-hourlong executive session on Tuesday, which Porter had signaled would discuss the board's legal options following what he and other board members consider to be oversteps by the Kansas Legislature.
"In my view, it is our responsibility to develop graduation standards, and my position on that is that that is non-negotiable," Porter had said on Tuesday ahead of the executive session.
On Thursday, he didn't rule out taking more aggressive legal action if the legislation in question becomes law.
"We will explore all options about how to react if this becomes law," Porter told The Topeka Capital-Journal after the meeting.
Frustration with mandates on civics test, gun safety courses
The board's ire has been directed several bills passed by the Kansas House and Senate during its regular session, which wrapped up Friday, that would essentially mandate certain parts of Kansas schools' curricula.
House Bill 2039 would eventually require all Kansas high schoolers to take and pass a personal finance course between their sophomore and senior years to graduate.
The board on Tuesday had heard a presentation on Kansas schools and how they approach and teach personal financial literacy.
Brad Neuenswander, deputy education commissioner, told the board that approximately 66% of the state’s school districts indicated they have some sort of policy on financial literacy courses being required to graduate, although he noted there was some confusion among districts as to whether a course simply being listed in student handbooks counted as a board policy on the class.
That number is also up 24% compared to a baseline survey in 2016, when the state board of education suggested, but didn't require, that local school boards do more to include financial literacy courses as graduation requirements.
In any case, virtually all Kansas school districts — or 285 out of 286 surveyed districts — include some kind of personal finance instruction in their high schools, even if not offered as a standalone course or necessarily required for graduation. Nearly 43% of districts require students pass a financial literacy course to graduate.
A separate part of House Bill 2039 would also require students to take and pass a 60-question, U.S. naturalization-style civics exam to graduate, with the state board of education charged with developing standards for those requirements over the next couple of years before implementing them.
And House Bill 2089, passed by both chambers, would require the state board of education to develop guidelines for firearm safety programs that school districts would have to use if they are to offer any kind of firearm safety instruction.
Those programs, by state law, would have to use the National Rifle Association's Eddie Eagle courses at the elementary school level, and the Kansas Department of Parks and Wildlife's programs for high school students. Middle schools would have the option to use either.
Porter, a former superintendent and school principal, said he had spent several of his early years at a school in a different state that did have hunter's safety courses that were actually required to obtain a hunting license.
"I am not opposed to firearm safety," he said. "I am, however, opposed to telling local school districts what curriculum to use and to take that option away from them."
House Bill 2039 as of Wednesday morning remains on Gov. Laura Kelly's desk, who hasn't said whether she'll sign or veto it, although it didn't receive a veto-proof majority when it first passed. House Bill 2089 was passed by the Senate last week but must be taken up and passed again by the House before heading to Kelly's desk.
State education board members clarified that they are adamantly in support of the curricula and subjects addressed in the bills. But they emphasized that they believed the state education board had the sole constitutional authority to actually implement any related standards and graduation requirements.
The personal finance and civics test bill has been a pet project of Rep. Steve Huebert, a Republican from Valley Center and chair of the Kansas House education committee.
Huebert in February had visited with the board during its monthly meeting in an attempt to defuse the tense situation between the education and legislative bodies.
State education board 'sends message' on $1.28 billion in federal COVID-19 school relief
After postponing action to Wednesday's meeting, the state education board voted to accept KSDE's framework on how it will prioritize 10% of $830 billion to address COVID-19 learning losses in Kansas schools.
Elementary and Secondary School Emergency Relief Funds III, or the third round of federal COVID-19 relief for schools, will allocate as much as $830 billion to Kansas schools. Kansas school districts will have to use or at least obligate those funds by September 2024, with the districts drawing down that funding on an as-needed basis.
The $830 million is in addition to $450 million in previous ESSER funding, with 90% of the $370 million in ESSER II and $830 million required to go directly to local school districts.
However, while KSDE had broad discretion to use the remaining 10% in ESSER II to provide services as the department and state board saw fit, the latest round of federal relief in ESSER III has much tighter stipulations on how that funding can be used.
One priority the state education department has had is "truing up" funding, since the federal legislation necessarily allocates funding based on each district's percentage of low-income students, in the absence of any other mechanism to distribute funding fairly.
But while that formula, based on the federal Title I, might be equitable, it doesn't ensure adequacy of support, state education commissioner Randy Watson said. In ESSER II, the state education department used $11.5 million to shore up funding to a minimum of $300 per student, which benefitted primarily a few select, higher income districts that would have otherwise received a pittance compared to their lower income counterparts.
With ESSER III, the state education department presented a plan to use $18.4 million to bring per-pupil funding to at least $600 for all districts as part of ESSER III, and at least $900 for overall funding.
Additionally, Watson outlined plans for the department to use the $75 million at its "discretion" on several initiatives. A 7% subset of the overall funding has to go to addressing learning loss, which Watson said has been difficult to late in the pandemic's stages and early in the education field's recovery from any COVID-19 effects.
However, he said the state department should direct $29 million to statewide training for educators to address learning loss, as well as $12 million for assisting districts in administering assessments and screeners for education problems.
Separately, 1% of the overall allocation has to go to statewide programs for summer enrichment. Preliminary ideas for that funding include contracting with existing community partners like the Boys and Girls Clubs of Kansas, the YMCA, libraries and recreation commissions to offer summer programs, or possibly paying for free summer activities for students in general, Watson said.
A maximum of 0.5% of the overall $830 million may be used for statewide administration of the funding, but Watson said the department plans to add onto a contract with Boston Consulting Group to administer the funding, as well as hire internal auditors and research staff to track funding.
The state education department has been at odds with the Legislature, which legislators at various times suggesting passing a K-12 education budget that would replace much of district's funding from the state general fund with the federal emergency relief dollars.
KSDE staff have advised legislators and the state board that doing so would risk falling afoul of the federal legislation, which mandates that funding be related to COVID-19 effects and could result in Kansas having to pay back substantial portions of the state relief if federal audits find problems with funding uses.
"We think this money is yours to spend," Watson said on Tuesday. "The Kansas Legislature — some of them think it’s their money to spend. What I’m asking you to do, if you want to send a statement that this is yours, because they’re going to come back and May and probably take a look at our budget and how to fund it."
As it stands, the state legislature earlier in April failed to pass a K-12 budget after the Senate split on a bill that included several controversial budget provisions, including an expansion of a school voucher program that would have allowed more individuals or organizations the abilities to use tax credits in sponsoring scholarships for private schools.
In all cases, KSDE staff will return to the state board with specific contracts for each of the priority funding areas. Watson said the federal COVID-19 funding presented a once-in-a-lifetime opportunity for Kansas schools.
"If we do this work right, it is the greatest opportunity in my lifetime," he said. "But we have to do it right."