Posted Date: 03/04/2021
The Kansas House K12 Education Budget Committee has approved HB 2119, a bill that combines education funding, restrictions on remote student learning and expanded state aid for private education.
We oppose HB 2119 because, although it would provide funding to help students, it also includes new policies that we believe will harm students in the long run.
We encourage school leaders to review the key elements of this bill and share your perspective with House members over the break before the Legislature returns next week on March 10.
The bills have three major components.
First, HB 2119 as amended contains funding important to improving student success, including the final two years of base budget increases under the Gannon school finance plan and reauthorizing the statewide school district mill levy. The base increases were agreed to by the Legislature and the Kansas Supreme Court to restore funding to 2009 inflation-adjusted levels.
Second, the bill expands the number of students eligible for an existing private school tax credit program and creates a new program of direct state aid to private education with no limit on funding and no requirements for transparency. Because private schools are not required to enroll and serve all students, this could move Kansas toward a “two-tiered” school system: private schools for those students who are chosen to attend and public schools with the more expensive and challenging students with the greatest needs. The bill would reduce funding for public schools and direct more public funding to private schools with less public oversight.
Third, the bill could limit how school boards manage a future crisis that could be very different than the current COVID-19 crisis. By limiting remote learning in a pandemic, schools could be forced to choose between unsafe in person learning or no instruction at all. The bill would reduce district funding for students using remote learning, even if districts continue to provide to provide a range of services to such students. This could make it harder for districts to develop more innovative ways to educate students in a variety of ways, or to recover from disasters.
School funding to help students succeed
Increased school funding is targeted at boosting student success and supporting educators.
In the first years of the Gannon plan, additional funding has been used to restore and expand positions and programs, especially in areas of special education, at-risk and bilingual programs, student mental health and early childhood; to raise salaries that have fallen behind comparable employees and other states; and to address the underfunded Kansas Public Employees Retirement System.
Additional state aid combined with federal funding will support in person learning and recovery.
These investments were made to improve Kansas student success and attract and retain high quality school staff who support students. The unprecedented COVID-19 pandemic is expected to have set back some of those efforts. Although districts will be receiving substantial federal funding to help school operate safely for in person learning and help learning recover, these funds are temporary and must be tied to the pandemic. Continuing the Gannon funding is vital to long-term, stable funding for student success.
Expansion of Private School Funding
The program is not limited to or prioritized for at-risk or special needs students.
Any student qualifying for free or reduced meals could qualify for a tax credit scholarship or education account under the bill (at least 45% of public school students). Any student designated by a school district for receiving at-risk services, regardless of income, could qualify for an education account.
The current scholarship program is targeted to only free lunch students who attend one of the 100 public elementary with the lowest test scores (which are mostly in high poverty school districts). The bill expands scholarship to reduced-price meal eligible students (who do better on state assessments than free lunch only students) attending any public school, regardless of performance measures.
That is an increase in an increase for a family of four from $34,060 to $48,470; for a family of six from $45,798 to $65,046 (source).
Under the bill, a student ranked at top of his or her class in a thriving public school, from a family of six earning over $60,000 per year has the same eligibility for a scholarship or education account as an academically struggling child from a single parent household below the poverty line.
These programs are not required to serve all students, although all Kansas would be contributing to support them through direct or indirect state taxes.
All taxpayers contribute to funding public schools, which enroll and provide educational services to all students in a district unless they are suspended or expelled for serious discipline issues. They are operated by elected local school boards under the general supervision of the elected State Board of Education and further oversight by the elected Legislature.
Tax credits reduce revenue for other state programs and education accounts would be paid from the state general fund which all Kansas taxpayers support through sales and income taxes. But private schools participating in these programs can exclude students for academic, disciplinary or religious reasons. The final “choice” on whether a student can attend these schools is with the school, not the parents or child.
These schools are not under the supervision of elected local officials; schools not accredited by the state are not supervised by the State Board, and few laws passed by the Legislature apply to private schools.
Participating schools are not required to be state accredited, participate in state assessments and other measures available on the Department of education website, or provide other student teacher information.
Private schools in the scholarship program can be either accredited by the Kansas State Board of Education or any national or regional accredited body approved for the State Board of Education for teacher licensure purposes. But nationally and regionally accredited schools do not have to participate in state assessments or provide student and teacher information. They do not even have to provide enrollment numbers to KSDE. (Scholarships are limited to $10 million in tax credits.)
Private schools in the education account program are not required to be accredited by any agency, meaning it is possible no independent organization will have any oversight. (There is no limit to the funding available for education accounts.)
Both scholarships and education accounts reduce funding for school districts.
The Kansas school finance formula is based on the number of students enrolled. Both private school aid programs in the bill require students to have first been enrolled in a public school district. When students receive a scholarship or education account to attend a private school, the district eventually can no longer count that student for funding.
This is a particular problem if the students who leave are lower cost students with fewer special needs, and the students who remain are higher cost students with more disabilities, other health issues, language challenges, and other academic, social and emotional needs.
These programs cost the state more money before reducing costs by lowering aid to public schools.
The tax credit program reduces revenue to the state general fund because contributors receive a 70% tax credit that reduces income tax paid to the state. The education accounts require the state put an amount up to the previous year’s base state aid per pupil into student accounts. However, under the school finance law, districts are funded based on the highest enrollment of the two prior years. The education account bill would also allow districts to keep student weighting funding for up to three years.
If 5% of students used the full education savings account in the first year, the state would have to spend more than $100 million to fund both the accounts and the school finance law. However, school districts would eventually lose 5% of their funding compared to current law.
Restrictions on Distance Learning
The bill removes local control over time in distance learning for all districts, even though most districts have had in person learning much of the time this year, and others were following national, state and local guidance or restrictions on safe operations.
With limited exceptions, the bill would prohibit school districts from using remote learning to meet the minimum school term unless approved by the State Board of Education for a maximum of 40 days or 240 hours.
Neither the local school nor State Board may exceed these limits, regardless of local circumstances or public support, or even availability of staff.
No allowance is made for future public health emergencies that could be more contagious or dangerous to children or younger adults than COVID-19.
The impact of this provision could be detrimental to children, families and employees.
These provisions could pressure school districts to provide in-person learning when significant health and safety issues remain.
Alternatively, the district could have to suspend school operations without providing ANY learning opportunities for students by extending the school year or simply dropping days and hours. The result would be the same problems for working families and student isolation as in remote learning, but with no learning or school support at all.
Reducing funding for students in remote learning over a certain limit to the same level as students in virtual schools will reduce options for students.
Virtual student programs typically are only organized to provide learning online. That should not be the same funding as for students who may wish to receive a portion of learning online but also receive in- person support and spent part of the time on site.
Reducing funding for students in remote learning after a specified number of times could be a disincentive to give students more remote learning options while still providing other support from the district.
Some students have thrived in remote learning, and others could use a blend of remote learning and in-person to provide more flexibly in finding the best environment for each student, for student employment or family needs, and learning self-direction.
Students using remote learning for a portion of their education may continue to receive at-risk risk or bilingual services, participate in career tech ed programs, or receive other services supported by weightings and base state aid, including a portion of time spent in-person and onsite.
Provisions limiting the time a district can be in remote learning and reducing funding for students in remote learning over certain limits were added without hearings on those specific proposals.
Although the committee received input on distance learning, there was no opportunity for public input on the specific limits on remote learning in the bill.
It is premature to make permanent changes in state law when we still do not know the full impact of time in remote and hybrid learning.
School leaders should prepare this information:
How have you been using increased funding from the Gannon plan the since 2018? What are your current plans for funding in in 2022 through 2023? Specify new personnel, programs and other improvements.
What plans are you developing for federal funding for in -person learning and recovery for students who need it?
Which students do you believe are most likely to use a private school scholarship or savings account, and what would be the impact on remaining students?
How did your district determine its in-person learning this year? How might restrictions on remote learning affect future responses to health emergencies?
How is your district using or considering using remote learning for individual students? What impact would reduced funding for students in remote, but not fully virtual, learning have on your budget and services to such students?