Controversial Bills Will Dominate Kansas House Education Committee This Week

Jan 31, 2016

The Kansas House Education Committee takes up three controversial bills this week including one that would cut the number of school districts in the state in half.
Credit Sam Zeff / KCUR

Three hugely controversial bills will dominate the Kansas House Education Committee starting Monday afternoon with the crescendo building to Wednesday. That's when legislators will debate a measure that would consolidate school districts in the state, cutting the number by more than half.

Currently, there are 286 districts in Kansas. The bill sponsored by Rep. John Bradford, a Republican from Lansing, would trim that to just 132.  Supporters of the measure say consolidation would save money although exactly how much isn't known. Bradford estimates $170 million over ten years.

The state Budget Division, in a note to lawmakers, says there would be no immediate savings because of block grant funding not locked in place through next fiscal year. "Because state aid to districts would not change, expenditures that would have been utilized for realigned superintendent salaries and “surplus district property,” such as administrative buildings and vehicles, would likely be reallocated within districts; however, overall expenditures for districts would not be reduced," according to the fiscal note.

However, the Budget Department does predict savings in the future.

Opponents have called on educators from across the state to descend on the Statehouse to try and block consolidation. Even if money could be saved, consolidating school districts could damage academics. "Our evidence is that states that have bigger school districts in general don't do as well academically, whereas Kansas now ranks ahead of most other states in most measures of student achievement," says Mark Tallman with the Kansas Association of Schools Boards (KASB).

But before the education committee gets to the consolidation fireworks, it will hear two other bills.

Monday afternoon there will be testimony on a bill that would create a state review board that would examine local bond issues and the state aid attached to those bonds. The state Budget Division says this bill would probably result in less state aid to districts for bonds sold after January 1 of this year.

KASB opposes this bill and the one the Education Committee will hear on Tuesday afternoon. That measure would extend a tax credit for scholarships for low income students.

Last year the Legislature approved tax credits for at-risk students to attend any private school, including parochial schools, with the sponsoring organization receiving an 80 percent tax credit on the maximum $8,000 scholarship. The new bill would remove the requirement that the student be at-risk and provide a 100 percent tax credit.

The House Education Committee begins this busy week Monday afternoon at 1:30.

Sam Zeff covers education for KCUR. He's also co-host of KCUR's political podcast Statehouse Blend. Follow him on Twitter @samzeff.