“What happened is immoral.” That was State Representative Melissa Rooker’s summation of the education finance bill that narrowly passed in the Kansas Legislature Sunday night.
Rooker sits on the House Education Committee and is often recognized as the education expert among the northeast Johnson County delegation. Rooker offers not only a harsh assessment of the bill that finally emerged, but also of the process that was used to cobble together the votes. Rooker said she was “heartsick” at the outcome.
While she objects to multiple parts of the bill, Rooker focuses on the corporate tax credit that created scholarship programs for certain students to attend private schools and an offsetting elimination of funds for certain at-risk students in the public schools. The tax credit “could be devastating,” she says. “What we don’t know is how this will affect a district like Shawnee Mission.”
“We took money away from students at risk across the state – gutted (that funding) in favor of corporate tax credits,” she said. The two categories of at-risk that were removed from the school finance formula are for students who are non-proficient (by testing) and those who are part-time or over 19. That saves the state more than $8 million while up to $10 million can be awarded in tax credits. Corporations could get a 70 percent credit for donating to organizations that grant scholarships to certain students – special needs or Title I – who move from public to private schools. They “are trying to draw students out of public schools,” Rooker says. She also questions the mechanism for being able to limit the credits handed out in a year.
The big issue that the education finance bill faced was funding court-ordered equalization. Rooker favored just straight-forward funding of the gap. But the final days of the session saw attempts to insert all kinds of policy changes into the bill.
A “sweetener for Johnson County,” Rooker says, was the increase in the local option budget cap from 31 percent to 33 percent of state funding. Shawnee Mission stands to gain $3.3 million from the change. Even thought the district loses about $300,000 from the two at-risk categories that were dropped, it was predicted to gain $489,000 when the base state aid per pupil rises by $14 next year – a plan already in place.
Rooker also objected to the loss of due process rights for teachers and the treatment of teachers during the debate. “The lack of respect shown our teachers was disgusting,” she says, but it probably was not the most harmful part of the legislation. All of the northeast Johnson County delegation opposed the bill.
It’s not just the contents of the final funding bill to which Rooker so strongly objects, but the manner and manipulations in the legislature to get it passed.
Tomorrow: The maneuvers to get policy changes in a funding bill.