The Kansas Legislature on Sunday backed a plan to increase funding to poor school districts while eliminating tenure for teachers.
The plan is in response to a supreme court ruling earlier this year which ordered the state to spend $129 million to address equity issues within state funding.
"The school finance bill passed by the Kansas legislature today fully complies with, and indeed exceeds, the requirements of the recent Kansas Supreme Court ruling for funding schools and providing equity," Brownback said in his statement.
However, Newton lawyer John Robb who was one of the lead litigators in a lawsuit brought by four school districts in 2012 wasn't quite so sure the bill would pass muster.
Robb cited three primary concerns — cuts to funds for at-risk students, a corporate tax credit or voucher program and allowing districts to raise property taxes.
"Policy makers also shifted some education funding from the state to local taxpayers by allowing wealthy districts to raise property taxes," Robb said. "Many other districts will not be able to raise additional tax revenue for schools. Increasing the local option budget widens the gap between rich and poor districts in a bill designed to cure inequity."
The plan initially was prompted by the Supreme Court's ruling that past, recession-driven cuts in aid to poor school districts create unfair and unconstitutional funding gaps between those districts and wealthier ones. Legislators in both parties consistently have proposed reversing those cuts, and the plan backed by the Senate on Sunday would provide an additional $129 million for poorer districts next school year.
But Republicans also wanted to offset those costs by trimming other types of aid to all school districts and by adjusting the budget outside of education. In addition, conservatives pushed for changes in education policy.
Another part of the bill would give corporations up to $10 million in tax credits for contributing to scholarship funds to help poor and at-risk children attend private schools.
"The corporate voucher/tax credit program diverts money away from public schools to private schools," Robb said. "We are continuing to study whether the legislative school funding bill approved late Sunday will satisfy the Kansas Supreme Court’s order to equalize funding between school districts. Our goal is to provide access to quality education for Kansas schoolchildren no matter where they live in the state."
While the plan may help property poor districts, conservative Senate Republicans insisted on eliminating tenure for public school teachers. The proposal brought dozens of red-shirted teachers to the Statehouse to protest.
State law says that after three years on the job, a teacher who's facing dismissal must be told why in writing and has the right to challenge the decision and have a hearing officer review the case.
The school funding bill strips teachers of those rights.
Officials with the Kansas National Education Association, the state's largest teachers' union, predicted a raft of lawsuits, with individual teachers who are dismissed likely to go to court. David Schauner, the union's general counsel, said after the Senate vote that any teacher who had earned protections should sue if a school district says those protections no longer apply.
Critics of the tenure system say it makes it difficult for administrators to fire poor or abusive teachers. The conservative Republicans who back the legislation said they didn't want to authorize so much new spending without getting some education policy changes. Their efforts to eliminate tenure had the backing of the conservative interest group Americans for Prosperity.
"We need to make sure that the best teachers are in the classrooms," said Jeff Glendening, the group's state director. "It's not about protecting the institutions or the labor union. It's about protecting our kids."
But the tenure provisions inspired the most debate.
The KNEA said the existing law prevents good teachers from being fired for arbitrary reasons. The union had a statewide meeting of hundreds of teachers Saturday, cutting it short so that many of them could converge on the Statehouse to lobby.
— The Associated Press contributed to this report.