Kan. Senate passes expanded school funding plan

Kansas Senate Majority Leader Terry Bruce of Nickerson addresses fellow Republicans before a Senate debate on a school funding plan, Thursday, April 3, 2014, at the Statehouse in Topeka, Kan. Watching to his right is Senate President Susan Wagle, a Wichita Republican. (AP Photo/John Hanna)
Kansas Senate Majority Leader Terry Bruce of Nickerson addresses fellow Republicans before a Senate debate on a school funding plan, Thursday, April 3, 2014, at the Statehouse in Topeka, Kan. Watching to his right is Senate President Susan Wagle, a Wichita Republican. (AP Photo/John Hanna)

TOPEKA, Kan. (AP) — The Kansas Senate approved a Republican education funding plan early Friday after expanding it to include a measure blocking public schools from using multistate reading and math standards.

The vote was 23-17 and sent the measure to the House, only hours after its Appropriations Committee finished work late Thursday on a more generous alternative plan. The full House planned to debate its measure later Friday.

Before the Senate’s debate began, Majority Leader Terry Bruce, of Nickerson, urged GOP senators to vote for the proposal even if they thought it was flawed, to keep the Legislature’s work on school funding issues progressing. Seven hours later, nine GOP senators broke with the party’s leaders and joined all eight Democrats in opposing the bill.

Conservative Republicans have attacked the multistate Common Core reading and math standards since the State Board of Education adopted them in 2010. The measure GOP senators added to the funding plan, on a 27-12 vote, would prevent the spending of tax dollars on implementing the standards through June 2017.

Opponents see the Common Core standards as akin to federal standards, because federal officials have encouraged their use. Critics also say the standards take control of school courses away from states and local districts, and would be costly to put into effect.

“We are in control of the purse, and with that control comes responsibility and accountability,” said Sen. Dennis Pyle, a conservative Hiawatha Republican.

But the standards were an initiative of governors’ and education commissioners’ associations, and supporters say they’ll improve teaching nationwide.

“The Common Core standards have the potential to do the best possible curriculum for students across the country,” said Terry Forsyth, a lobbyist for the Kansas National Education Association, the state’s largest teachers’ union.

Conservatives also amended the bill to make it easier for school administrators to fire teachers who’ve been on the job for more than three years. Supporters said the current administrative due process laws make it difficult to remove teachers who are underperforming and ineffective in the classroom.

The Senate Republicans’ plan is designed to satisfy a Kansas Supreme Court decision directing lawmakers to boost aid to poor districts by July. Senators expected to consider multiple changes and vote on the bill late Thursday night.

The measure increases aid to poor districts by $129 million annually to reverse past, recession-driven cuts in funding. The bill offsets part of the cost by trimming state aid to all districts for online classes and transportation programs.

The bill also ties changes in aid to school districts to other education policies sought by conservatives, including a proposal to give families sending their children to private schools a tax break of up to $2,500 a year.

Senate Minority Leader Anthony Hensley, a Topeka Democrat, argued that the state should simply boost aid to poor school districts, cover the cost with the state’s cash reserves and jettison the rest of the GOP plan.

“All the rest of this stuff that we have in this bill isn’t necessary at all in order for us to meet the obligation under the court order,” Hensley said.

The final version of any plan will have to be negotiated with the House. Its plan also boosted aid to poor school districts.

The Appropriations Committee also had proposed trimming aid to all districts for their transportation programs, online classes and programs for at-risk children, and had considered reducing payments for teacher pensions. It backed off almost all of those reductions Thursday night.

Legislators were also working under a tight deadline because they plan to take a three-week recess starting this weekend. GOP leaders hoped to have the school funding issue settled before the break and leave only minor issues to resolve when they returned later in the month.

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