By: Maria Benevento
Kansas state lawmakers have filed several dozen additional bills related to education since our roundup of school-related legislation in late January.
This new batch of bills covers topics like parental rights, school choice, transgender women athletes, vaccine exemptions, teacher retirement and guns on campus. Here are some bills to watch.
Any given Kansas bill could be amended at many points during the process and would need to be approved by both houses and signed by Gov. Laura Kelly before becoming law. The legislature generally adjourns in early May, according to its website.
Transparency and parents’ rights
As some parents and politicians nationwide criticize schools for COVID precautions, specific books available in school and classroom libraries, and teaching about race and diversity, both chambers are proposing “parents’ bills of rights” and other bills that would add scrutiny to curriculum.
For example, a proposal sponsored by the House Committee on K-12 Education Budget (HB 2662) gives parents the rights to direct the education, moral and religious upbringing and health care of their child, including making vaccination decisions.
It also says parents should be able to expect that teachers will present facts without bias and will not receive training that promotes “racially essentialist doctrines.”
The bill says parents should have access to information about what children are learning — including through an online “transparency portal” — and that they should be able to object to class materials or library books.
A shorter Senate version of the parents’ bill of rights is SB 496.
Another proposal (SB 515), which echoes language of bills filed in Missouri this year, prohibits the teaching of “divisive concepts” such as that people are inherently racist, privileged, sexist, oppressive or responsible for historical oppression simply because of their race, ethnicity or sex. It is sponsored by the Committee on Assessment and Taxation.
Vouchers for private schools, removing district limits
Bills filed in both chambers would create a voucher-like program for students to attend private schools. (Missouri narrowly approved a similar program last year.)
One proposal (HB 2550) is sponsored by the House Committee on K-12 Education Budget.
For at-risk or low-income students who attend private school, Kansas would transfer the student’s base aid from the state — which would normally go to the public school district — into an account that earns interest. The funds could be used for private school tuition and fees, required books and materials, and some other education-related expenses such as tutoring.
The introduction to the proposal says it is intended to recognize that students have unique needs and a “one size fits all” approach is not effective.
The Committee on Education is sponsoring a proposal in the Senate (SB 475) that would create a similar program with broader eligibility requirements.
In another attempt to expand students’ school options, proposals in the House (HB 2553) and the Senate (SB 455) would let public school students attend any district in the state regardless of where they live.
The proposals are sponsored by the House’s K-12 Education Budget Committee and the Senate’s Committee on Education, respectively.
School districts could turn away students from outside the district if they don’t have room for them or for other reasons like high absenteeism or repeated suspensions. It would be optional for them to provide transportation, but they couldn’t discriminate based on ethnicity, nationality, gender, disability, income, English ability, academic achievement or athleticism.
Transgender women and sports
A proposal sponsored by the Senate Committee on Education (SB 484) would prevent transgender women from playing on school sports teams designated for “females, women or girls.”
The proposal would apply to public K-12 schools and public colleges and universities, as well as any teams that play against public schools.
Similar legislation has also been filed in Missouri alongside proposals that would ban gender-affirming hormones for children.
Expanding remote learning time
Legislation sponsored by the House Committee on K-12 Education Budget (HB 2551) would remove limits on remote learning.
A recent state law financially penalizes school districts if students learn remotely for more than about a week, limiting the amount of virtual education schools can provide if students are quarantined or if schools shut down for inclement weather, disease outbreaks or maintenance issues.
Testing and accountability
Under a proposal sponsored by the Committee on K-12 Education Budget (HB 2685), Kansas students in grades K-12 would take state tests in core subjects every year and their performance would be tied to consequences.
If they fail to score at grade level, students could not advance to the next grade or — in the case of 12th graders — not become certified graduates.
High school students could also take assessments ahead of required courses and skip the courses if they score high enough.
The bill wouldn’t apply to some students with individualized education programs.
Adjusting public employee retirement payments
Several bills in both chambers would adjust the Kansas Public Employees Retirement System, known as KPERS.
KPERS covers public school teachers in the state but doesn’t provide enough benefits for workers to maintain their standard of living when they retire without additional savings or income sources.
Retirees have lobbied for a cost of living adjustment to payments for teachers already retired; those payments are partially based on the salaries employees made at the ends of their careers and haven’t kept up with modern expenses
A proposal sponsored by the House Committee on Insurance and Pensions (HB 2584) would provide an adjustment. It would increase payments between 1% and 5%, depending on the date of retirement, for those who retired on or before July 1, 2017. The increase could be no more than $200 a month.
Guns on campus
Rep. Brandon Woodard, a Democrat from Lenexa, is sponsoring a bill (HB 2610) that would allow state universities to ban people from carrying concealed weapons in buildings without a license.
They could also ban licensed people from carrying concealed weapons if the building has adequate security.
Currently, the law requires most public buildings to allow concealed weapons.
A bill (HB 2613) sponsored by Rep. Barbara Ballard, a Democrat from Lawrence, would more broadly exempt public universities from that requirement.
Public university tuition for nonresidents
A proposal sponsored by six Republican representatives (HB 2641) would prohibit the Kansas Board of Regents from charging higher public university tuition to students who aren’t Kansas residents.
It’s common for states to charge nonresidents higher tuition at their public universities because those universities are partially funded with taxpayer dollars from state residents.
For example, the University of Kansas currently charges Kansans about $10,000 a year in tuition for 30 credit hours. Nonresidents would pay nearly $27,000 for the same number of credits.
Religious exemptions for vaccines
Proposals in the House and Senate would broaden existing religious exemptions for vaccine requirements in child care facilities and schools.
Currently, families can be exempt from vaccinating their children if they belong to a religious denomination that opposes vaccines.
Under similar bills sponsored by the Senate Committee on Public Health and Welfare (SB 398) and two Republican representatives (HB 2669), parents could request an exemption based on any “sincerely held religious belief.”
The proposals broaden the definition of “sincerely held religious belief” to apply to any moral or ethical beliefs about right and wrong “sincerely held with the strength of traditional religious views.” Schools can’t do anything to investigate whether the beliefs are truly sincere.
A proposal from the Senate Committee on Assessment and Taxation (SB 432) would provide a back-to-school tax holiday in early August.
On the tax holiday, school-related sales of clothing, clothing accessories, school supplies, instructional materials, art supplies, software, computers or computer supplies would be exempt from Kansas sales tax.
Missouri already offers a three-day tax holiday for school supplies.
Maria Benevento is the education reporter at The Kansas City Beacon. She is a Report for America corps member.