Desks in an empty school classroom
Kansas lawmakers passed a $6.4 billion education bill that includes several policy initiatives, including one that allows open enrollment across school districts starting in 2024. (Photo illustration/Canva)

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A bill that funds K-12 public education in Kansas is now law, packed with $6.4 billion in funding and policy proposals that, among other initiatives, change rules on how and where students may attend school. But getting there wasn’t easy.

Gov. Laura Kelly signed the measure on May 17, bringing to a close weeks of negotiations and contentious disagreements. But at the end of the legislature’s first veto session  in late April, lawmakers passed the education budget generally along party lines.

The bill didn’t please everyone. Kelly cited the measure’s lack of $30 million she requested to boost funding for special education services. Some Republican lawmakers argued that past court decisions were forcing them to spend more on education than they would like. 

“I have a big problem with giving school districts any more money,” state Sen. Renee Erickson, R-Wichita, said during closing remarks in a conference committee hearing finalizing the bill. The conference committee consists of three lawmakers from each chamber with broad authority to negotiate and write the final bill that will be voted on by the legislature. 

“We have heard time and time again the overwhelming needs of this state. To allocate more money voluntarily for education goes against my intellect,” Erickson added.

The Wichita lawmaker voted in support of the budget, which passed mostly along party lines.

The state’s annual education appropriation is how school districts get a huge portion of their annual funding. Most school district funds are issued through foundation grants determined by a funding formula that uses a per-student rate — lawmakers determined $4,846 per student for the 2022-2023 school year, up from $4,706 the year before — to tally the amount each district gets. 

Lawmakers included a number of policy items unrelated to the budget, such as mandating open enrollment across district boundaries, allowing students to split public school attendance with other options and expanding eligible programs under the Kansas Promise Scholarship. 

You can read the full text of the bill or the conference committee report brief for a plain-language list of proposed items.

What the education budget funds

Lawmakers appropriated $6.4 billion statewide for education for fiscal year 2023, which starts July 1. Of that, $4.2 billion will come from the state’s general fund. That number includes the state’s funding for public school daily operations, including per-student funding that goes directly to districts, special education services and employer contributions to state retirement funds. 

Also included in the $6.4 billion are initiatives aimed at responding to the mental health needs of students. Around $10.5 million is earmarked to continue the Mental Health Intervention Team pilot program, which aims to connect students with mental health centers to reduce barriers to therapy. The program launched in the 2018-2019 school year in nine districts, and within two years expanded to 212 schools in 56 districts. 

Lawmakers want to establish a free-for-students virtual math program using $4 million in federal funds from the American Rescue Plan Act (ARPA). The law mandates that the program be available in multiple languages.

The budget also appropriates $2.5 million for school food assistance, $8.4 million for the Parents as Teachers program and $5 million for school safety grants, which includes $1 million in ARPA funds.

The bill does not include an additional $30 million in special education funding that Kelly requested. State law requires that the legislature fund 92% of school districts’ special education costs above what federal funds pay for, but it provides no way to enforce the requirement. The Kansas State Department of Education said that the legislature has never met its funding obligations; conservative lawmakers and advocates have said otherwise.

Rep. Kristey Williams, R-Augusta and chair of the House Committee on K-12 Education Budget, said during conference committee hearings that special education is adequately funded according to her calculations. Those differ from the rate calculated by KSDE and the economists who prepare the state’s budget. 

Mark Tallman, associate executive director of advocacy for the Kansas Association of School Boards, said that special education is funded, but at the cost of other programs.

“Because the state isn’t funding its formula, that pulls more money out of what we might call regular education to cover those extra costs,” Tallman said. 

Open enrollment in 2024

The education budget includes a requirement that school districts accept students who do not reside in that district, and prohibits districts from charging tuition for out-of-district students. If there are more students then there are available openings, districts are required to set up a lottery process for admissions. The open enrollment requirement starts in the 2024-25 school year. 

School districts must determine how much space exists for out-of-district students. If there are more spaces than applicants, school districts are required to enroll all interested students. If a student is denied, the district is required to provide a reason why. 

The law prohibits districts from admitting or denying students based on ethnicity, national origin, gender, income level, disabilities, English proficiency, academic success, aptitude or athletic ability. 

The state’s funding will follow a student into their new district. 

“Nothing in this law changes how school finance is based on enrollment,” Tallman said. 

Additional per-student funding — for example, money sent to schools for special education students or high-risk students — will also follow the student.

Critics of the open attendance policy said that questions around capacity and disagreements over nonadmission could lead to conflict. Some school districts in high-growth areas, such as Andover and Valley Center near Wichita, may not have the capacity to enroll any out-of-district students, said Leah Fliter, governmental relations director for the Kansas Association of School Boards. 

The law does yet specify how projected growth would factor into capacity numbers. Fliter said this may need to be clarified before it goes into effect.

Childhood literacy and curriculum requirements

Included in the budget is a program that seeks to improve literacy rates in elementary school students. It establishes the Every Child Can Read Act, which requires participating schools to provide targeted interventions for third graders using specific curriculums designated by the legislature.

Critics of the act said that the curriculum mandate means the legislature is effectively overriding the KSDE, making it difficult to update or adjust the curriculum as the need arises.

“It is concerning that the legislature has determined what should be included in student instruction instead of the expert staff at the Department of Education,” lobbyists for the Kansas Board of Education wrote in testimony opposing a similar policy in a different bill.

“Listing it in statute indicates you don’t believe the KSDE staff has the training to lead this effort. Additionally, including specific lists of instructional strategies in statute would require a change in law whenever outdated strategies need to be removed or new ones added,” the lobbyists added.

Depending on individual needs, the required targeted intervention could mean one-on-one teaching, tutoring, small groups or summer school, all of which the act mandates that the school provide. Teachers will be required to submit reports each semester  to parents detailing their child’s assessment and progress. 

Schools will be required to track and report results of the program to KSDE. The agency would report statewide results to the governor and legislature. 

Virtual school, alternative education, part-time enrollment

The bill raises the per-student rate that schools receive for virtual students to $5,600 from $5,000 and prohibits virtual schools from providing financial incentives for students to enroll. The bill also gives schools $709 per passed course, up to six courses per year, for virtual students under age 20 who had previously dropped out of high school. State Rep. Susan Estes, R-Wichita, wrote that the prohibition on financial incentives would be “a proactive measure to prevent abuse of tax dollars.” 

The bill also codifies alternative education arrangements that allow students from grades 6 through 12 to earn course credits in nonclassroom settings, such as internships or apprenticeship programs coordinated with supervising organizations. Advocates and administrators testified on a similar bill, and said that such alternative education arrangements are already included in many school curriculums but that the proposal might make these programs more widely available throughout the state.

Another provision in the bill allows students to enroll in a public school part-time while they are enrolled elsewhere, such as home school or private school. While the bill requires school districts to develop policies to allow part-time enrollment, districts would not be required to accommodate every request. In testimony for a similar bill, supporters of a part-time enrollment policy touted the flexibility of the arrangement, while opponents questioned how schools could ensure part-time students were meeting benchmarks that measure student progress and success. 

Promise Scholarships expanded

The bill also expands the fields of study covered by the Kansas Promise Scholarship program, which launched less than a year ago. The program covers the costs of community college or technical school for students who are studying for professions that are high-demand, high-paying or meet a critical need. 

Each participating school may add an entire field of study covering multiple programs to the list of eligible programs that would receive funding. The newly proposed fields, which will need approval from the Kansas Board of Regents, are agriculture; food and natural resources; education and training; law, corrections, public safety and security; distribution and logistics; and an additional field of study chosen by the college to meet local needs. 

The scholarship program currently covers programs for mental and physical health care; early childhood education and development; information technology and security; advanced manufacturing and building trades; and an additional program chosen by the college.

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Miranda Moore covers the Kansas Statehouse and state government for The Wichita Beacon. Follow her on Twitter @Miranda_Writes1.