Analysis: Kansas poised to end K-12 teacher tenure

FILE - Kansas Gov. Sam Brownback speaks to state House Republicans before they debate a school funding plan, Friday, April 4, 2014, at the Statehouse in Topeka. (AP Photo/John Hanna)
FILE - Kansas Gov. Sam Brownback speaks to state House Republicans before they debate a school funding plan, Friday, April 4, 2014, at the Statehouse in Topeka. (AP Photo/John Hanna)

TOPEKA, Kan. (AP) — Republican Gov. Sam Brownback is all but certain to resist pressure to veto a proposal that would end tenure for public school teachers, approved by the Legislature as part of a court-mandated education funding plan.

Brownback must act on the bill before April 26. Signing the anti-tenure proposal into law could complicate Brownback’s re-election by energizing thousands of angry educators to work against him. He’s avoided public statements about the measure’s merits.

But Brownback, his aides and high-ranking Republican allies in the Legislature already have explained why they believe the measure should become law.

Top GOP legislators argue that the anti-tenure policy is not as harsh as it has been portrayed and will help remove bad teachers from classrooms. Brownback and his staff have noted that the measure is part of broader legislation increasing aid to poor school districts, and the whole thing probably would have to be sacrificed to save tenure.

Lawmakers face a July 1 deadline, imposed by the Kansas Supreme Court, which gives them little time to start over.

“We need to continue funding our schools,” Brownback spokeswoman Eileen Hawley said after promising the governor will “take a very careful look” at all the bill’s provisions.

The state Supreme Court ruled in March that past, recession-driven cuts in aid to poor districts created unconstitutional funding gaps between them and wealthier ones. Reversing those cuts will cost $129 million in the 2014-2015 school year, and the plan approved by lawmakers contains the full amount.

GOP conservatives insisted on tying spending to policy changes, including the anti-tenure proposal.

Brownback praised the plan immediately after its passage, pointing to the new dollars for schools. But theKansas National Education Association, the state’s largest teachers’ union and a vocal critic of the plan, has said the issue is not money.

Instead, the KNEA says what’s driving its aggressive social media campaign against the measure is “due process.”

Currently, Kansas teachers facing dismissal after at least three years in the classroom can have their cases reviewed by independent administrative hearing officers. Last year, 18 teachers requested the appointment of hearing officers, according to the state Department of Education.

The school funding plan eliminates that right in state law, though any teacher could still seek an administrative hearing if he or she faces dismissal for exercising a right, such as free speech, protected by the state or U.S. constitutions. But with the changes, the KNEA said, administrators won’t be required to tell teachers why they’re being fired — and aren’t likely to admit it’s because of a political or religious view.

Supporters of the bill pushed back, saying the bill doesn’t prevent local school districts from preserving existing due-process rights in collective bargaining agreements with teachers.

“Honestly, this is a local control bill,” said Senate Vice President Jeff King, an Independence Republican and an attorney. “The impact of this bill has been greatly overblown.”

Ending tenure was the bill supporters’ intent, and they argue it’s a good thing, giving administrators more flexibility in improving their schools.

The KNEA scoffed at the suggestion that the anti-tenure provisions are milder than depicted, and spokesman Marcus Baltzell predicted the changes will promote a “culture of cover-up, harassment and bullying.”

House Minority Leader Paul Davis, a Lawrence Democrat who’s challenging Brownback for governor, seized on the issue. Campaign manager Chris Pumpelly said Brownback and his legislative allies faced a simple task, to “fund our schools.”

“They decided to mix in unnecessary, unpopular partisan policies,” he said. “That was a mistake.”

Supporters and critics initially debated whether Brownback could strike the anti-tenure language from the bill with a line-item veto, but the growing consensus among legislative lawyers and the governor’s staff was that he could not.

Thus, to kill the anti-tenure proposal, Brownback would have to veto the entire bill — killing the provisions that satisfy the Supreme Court’s mandate to provide “equity” in funding between poor and wealthier school districts.

Baltzell argues for Brownback to “strike the whole thing” and bring about “a clean funding bill.”

Republican leaders insisted on passing a school funding bill before lawmakers’ annual spring break, which lasts through April 29, arguing that waiting longer risks missing the July 1 deadline. The state’s high court said if lawmakers miss the deadline, part of the state’s funding formula — about $1 billion in school spending — must be put on hold.

“I would not want to do anything to put at risk funding for our schools,” Hawley said.

Thus, Brownback is poised to let the anti-tenure proposal become law, whatever enmity it earns him.

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AP Political Writer John Hanna has covered Kansas government and politics since 1987. Follow him on Twitter at https://twitter.com/apjdhanna

Copyright 2014 The Associated Press. All rights reserved. This material may not be published, broadcast, rewritten or redistributed.

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