Many issues affecting public education swirling around Statehouse

By Scott Rothschild 

In some ways, Kansas is experiencing the ad astra (to the stars) portion of its state motto after years of the per aspera (through difficulties).  

The Gannon school finance lawsuit is somewhat settled, state revenues are recovering from the shortfalls of Gov. Sam Brownback’s administration and Kansas attitudes have shifted dramatically. More than 77 percent of Kansans feel Kansas is on the “right track” when just three years ago, only 30 percent felt that way, according to the Kansas Speaks Survey done by Fort Hays State University. 

But education advocates cannot get complacent because education issues will continue to be scrutinized. With elections on the horizon, dozens of issues that could affect public schools will be swirling inside the Statehouse when the 2020 legislative session starts Jan. 13. 

All 125 state House seats and 40 Senate seats will be on the ballot in November. Dozens of candidates and officeholders are jockeying for promotions to higher office with probably the two most prominent in the state Senate — Republican Senate President Susan Wagle and Democrat Barbara Bollier are running for their parties’ nominations to fill the U.S. Senate vacancy that will be created by the retiring Pat Roberts.    

Federal politics will loom large in state debates, especially when the Legislature tackles the issue of whether to expand Medicaid to provide health care coverage for an additional 150,000 poor Kansans. Gov. Laura Kelly and Senate Majority Leader Jim Denning, R-Overland Park, have announced a compromise Medicaid plan.

With increasing state revenues will come increasing pressures to fund areas that have been neglected or cut taxes or do both – all decisions that could affect school funding 

And schools face new challenges, such as vaping, that weren’t even on the radar last time the Legislature met. 

Here is a rundown of major education issues likely to arise during the session: 

Gannon school finance lawsuit 

Since the Legislature last met, the Kansas Supreme Court accepted the state’s plan to restore funding levels, adjusted for inflation, to 2009 levels by 2023. The court has retained jurisdiction to ensure compliance. While opponents of the plan say the state won’t be able to afford the phased-in increases, recent increases in revenue estimates make the funding plan look more stable. Still, any downturns in the economy could produce problems. 

At-risk funding 

A new state audit has raised questions about the effectiveness of approved funding to help students who are at risk of failing, but the Kansas State Department of Education has defended the practices. Expect some legislators to raise issues outlined in the audit while schools seek to extend a provision that will “sunset” high-density at-risk funding, which provides $50 million to high risk schools. 

Student health  

The dramatic increase in students who are vaping and associated addiction and health problems has prompted education and health advocates to push for tighter controls on the use of e-cigarettes and vaping products in schools. Recent federal legislation raised the minimum legal age to purchase any tobacco product from 18 to 21. Also in the works are bills to prohibit vaping in workplaces and public areas, banning certain e-liquid flavors and raising taxes on tobacco products. 

Bullying 

A state task force has recommended a wide range of strategies to help schools reduce bullying but the issue in recent years has also caught the attention of legislators. 

Supreme Court selection  

There is a move in the Legislature among legislators unhappy with the Kansas Supreme Court’s rulings on school finance and abortion to change the way Supreme Court justices are selected. Any change in this process, could affect the makeup of the court, which over the past two decades has generally sided with school advocates petitioning the state for increased school funding. Currently, Kansas Supreme Court justices are appointed by the governor from a list of three candidates submitted by the Supreme Court Nominating Commission. Some legislators have called for making the justices subject to Senate confirmation, similar to the way justices are selected to the U.S. Supreme Court. But support of the current selection system spans a wide spectrum of interests, some of whom said changing it would inject too much partisan politics into the judiciary, reduce the judiciary’s independence and ultimately lower the public’s faith in the judicial branch of government. Any proposed change to the way state Supreme Court justices are selected would require a constitutional amendment, which would require two-thirds majorities in the state House and Senate to get it on the ballot for voters to decide the issue. 

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