Call for vouchers and change in State Board authority raised at hearing

A Kansas legislative hearing on emergency management featured proposals by a key Kansas legislator to give parents vouchers if schools go online and to potentially treat private schools like private businesses in relation to public health orders.  

In separate testimony, Education Commissioner Randy Watson briefed lawmakers on the Kansas State Department of Education’s “Navigating Change” guidance document on curriculum and school safety. Watson urged committee members to rely on state education and health officials for information rather than the internet or social media as schools reopen for the 2020-21 school year.  

And Kansas Secretary of Health and Environment and State Health Officer Dr. Lee Norman told committee members “it’s up to the governor” to make any further declarations on school closures, but speculated personally that local control and varying COVID-19 infection rates will prompt many school districts to change their instructional methods as the school year progresses. 

The Tuesday hearing was conducted by the Special Committee on the Kansas Emergency Management Act. The special legislative committee was formed to consider lessons learned from the continuing COVID-19 pandemic that closed the Legislature, Kansas school buildings and many businesses last March and how those lessons might prompt changes to the state emergency management law. 

The bipartisan committee is chaired by Rep. Fred Patton, who also serves on the Seaman USD 345 Board of Education. Patton is a former KASB President. 

House K-12 Education Budget Chair Kristey Williams suggested in her testimony that the state emergency management law be amended to the effect that in the event a public school isn’t offering any form of in-person learning for an extended time, parents could set up an Education Savings Account to allow them to pay for the costs of private school or private school tutoring. Williams characterized remote learning as “a pale shadow of direct-contact learning.” 

With many school districts using remote learning environments exclusively, parents are looking for alternative education options that involve in-person instruction,” Williams testified. The use of an ESA would potentially give those parents more flexibility in finding an alternative education for their child. She suggested the savings accounts would take all or most of the base state aid that would go to a student’s home school district and transfer that funding to a state-managed account to be used for education expenses. Williams said Kansas is the fifth-most restrictive state nationwide in terms of allowing “school choice.” 

KASB opposes legislation that would use tuition tax credits, voucher systems or choice plans to aid private elementary or secondary schools which are not subject to the same legal requirements as public-school districts. 

Williams also suggested treating private schools like private businesses in the event of public-health related closures of Kansas schools.  

William suggested that in statewide emergencies, “Any executive order issued by the Governor that had the effect of closing private schools would become effectively immediately with respect to private schools regardless of any action taken by the State Board of Education. Private schools would most likely be treated similar to other private businesses in terms of the application of executive orders relating to public health.  As with other executive orders relating to public health, the local board of county commissioners would have authority to issue less stringent public health orders that could allow private schools located in the county to remain open. 

Alternatively, the Legislature could amend (state law) to require State Board approval for orders affecting public schools and private schools that are accredited by the State Board.  All private schools that are not accredited by the State Board would then be treated as described above. 

 Williams also asked for statutory clarification of the authority of local county commissions and boards of education during statewide emergencies as well as clarification of the role of the three branches of state government in overseeing public education during an emergency. 

Williams also asked the committee to require districts to make up instructional hours for at-risk students during exclusively remote learning. 

Commissioner Watson told the committee that while some students do very well in remote learning the vast majority do best with a caring teacher in a brick and mortar school. “It’s the virus that will dictate whether we can be there,” he said.  

Watson walked through the “Navigating Change” guidance document approved by the State Board of Education. The document offers Kansas school districts hundreds of pages of recommendations on curriculum and safe school operations and includes recommendations from Kansas physicians and health experts on metrics to guide school reopening decisions. Watson said school district plans for the 2020-21 school year are much more robust than the temporary measures developed last Spring as the COVID-19 pandemic forced the closure of school buildings and businesses across the state and will focus on safety, equity and a variety of methods to safely educate students. 

In response to questions from the committee, Watson urged lawmakers and others to respect the data and research local boards are using to influence their reopening plans. He noted that varying infection rates statewide have prompted some school districts to begin the year in remote-only mode; schools in more sparsely-populated areas are able to open fully in person; and others are opting for blended models of in-person and remote learning as infection rates in their communities increase.  

“Don’t go on the internet” for the best information, Watson said. “I’m relying on Kansas medical people to give me the best advice.”  

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