A conservative think tank sought support for a Kansas House bill Monday requiring public school districts to prove state aid earmarked for at-risk students was spent on authorized academic programs and to compel each district to report on student academic progress in relation to each initiative.
Former House Speaker Mike O'Neal, speaking on behalf of Kansas Policy Institute, said new state spending for K-12 students thought to be in jeopardy of failure was being diverted by school districts to general operating budgets rather than targeted at designated students. He told the House Education Committee that House Bill 2540 would better hold local school districts accountable.
"Legislation intended to target at-risk funding toward the goal of lifting up at-risk students has failed largely due to those funds being diluted at the district level," O'Neal said. "The status quo is not acceptable."
He pointed to a December report by the Kansas Legislature's auditing division indicating the Kansas State Department of Education didn't comply with state law dictating at-risk education dollars be spent on evidence-based practices. The audit said compliance "is poorly managed at the state level and not adequately implemented at the district level."
Auditors found districts spent most of the at-risk funding on teacher salaries without an assurance the money was beneficial to at-risk students or invested in evidence-based programs.
Rep. David Benson, an Overland Park Democrat on the House committee, said he was disturbed that O'Neal offered testimony based on a "flawed" report from legislative auditors. Benson's commentary and questioning of O'Neal was ruled "out of order" by Rep. Kristey Williams, the Augusta Republican who chairs the House committee.
Mark Tallman, who lobbies for Kansas Association of School Boards, said the organization opposed the bill. He said provisions of the bill requiring state officials to approve evidence-based programs for struggling students should take into account the value of districts choosing educational methods capable of producing results for students in their communities.
"We do not believe that all wisdom resides at the state level and that there may be evidence-based programs and practices that might be discovered or developed by local districts not on any list of programs," Tallman said.
He said requiring districts to report academic performance of every student in relation to every program used was impractical because students would likely be part of multiple initiatives. It may be impossible to determine the unique contribution of each intervention, he said.
Terry Forsyth, who represents Kansas-National Education Association, said the bill reflected an impulse by pubic school skeptics to micromanage classroom work by educators responsible for addressing needs of children in English, math, reading and other subjects. The House bill exposes a lack of confidence in the state's teachers, he said.
"We seem to believe that they aren't particularly concerned about struggling students or don't really want to put in the effort to help them," he said. "We should honor their work and let them get on with it."