Kansas State Board of Education, Legislature try to rectify ‘turf battles’ after rocky year

Andrew Bahl
Topeka Capital-Journal
Standing in front of the Kansas State Board of Education, Craig Neuenswader, deputy commissioner for fiscal and administrative services at the department of education, begins reviewing proposed budget spending.

The Kansas State Board of Education and state legislators are working to repair relations after a rocky year saw the two entities at odds over who has the power to shape the school experience for hundreds of thousands of students.

At issue last session were a series of efforts by the Legislature to set curriculum standards and graduation requirements — something that board of education members argued imposed on authority they believe is given to them by the Kansas Constitution.

Legislators, meanwhile, have long bristled at increased school funding mandates handed down by the Kansas Supreme Court and have argued this should pave the way for corresponding policy changes.

Both sides are pondering ways to reach a détente.

"I just don’t want to go over there with a fist in one hand and a fist in the other," said board member Jim McNiece, R-Wichita. "I would like to be the adult in the room and understand the process."

But the potential for conflict remains, with the board of education set to embark on a potential revamp of high school graduation requirements — without legislative input.

"As we make funding decisions, we have a role in defining what we want our children to learn," said Rep. Steve Huebert, R-Valley Center, chair of the House Education Committee. "And they need to work with us. And I'm frustrated because it's not happening the way it needs to happen."

Fallout stems from proposed curriculum changes, funding mandates

The crux of the fallout stems from a triumvirate of proposals where legislators aimed to shape graduation requirements and school curriculum — two areas the state board believe clearly fall under their constitutional mandate to provide for the "general supervision" of the state's public schools.

The most sweeping bill would have required students take and pass a 60-question, U.S. naturalization-style civics exam to graduate, with the state board of education charged with developing standards for those requirements over the ensuing years before implementing them.

Another element of that legislation would have mandated all Kansas high schoolers to take and pass a personal finance course between their sophomore and senior years to graduate.

And a second bill would instruct the state board of education to develop guidelines for firearm safety programs that school districts would have to use if they are to offer any kind of firearm safety instruction.

Those programs, by state law, would have to be based on the National Rifle Association's Eddie Eagle courses at the elementary school level, and the Kansas Department of Wildlife, Parks and Tourism programs for high school students.

Both bills were vetoed by Gov. Laura Kelly, who specifically cited in her veto messages that they were "legislative overreach."

Jim Porter, chairman of the Kansas State Board of Education, asks questions to board members at Wednesday's meeting.

Board Chair Jim Porter, R-Fredonia, said his colleagues needed to send a strong statement to the Legislature that "there will be consequences" if they opt to try again on any of those efforts. He specifically cited the possibility of a lawsuit, with no major court rulings on the board of education's authority since the 1970s.

"I would hope that we would be in a position where we take a very strong position and be willing to go that route if we have to," Porter said.

But Huebert said he attempted to include the board of education in the drafting of the civics test bill. The feedback he received, he said, was that nothing short of "gutting" the bill would be acceptable.

"They were so adamant, and trying to defend their turf, that they couldn't look past that to work with me," he said.

And as the state continues to disperse federal COVID-19 relief funding, communication gaps have cropped up on that front as well.

In a sweeping education funding package signed by Gov. Laura Kelly last month, legislators required the state board of education to use federal aid dollars to support a handful of programs, including grants for school safety and a mental health pilot program, among other initiatives.

Board members said Wednesday, however, it appears guidance from the U.S. Department of Education will prevent the federal funds from being used for the school safety effort, which helps districts purchase security cameras and other equipment.

A portion of the funds set aside for discretionary uses could go for mental health — except that money was already spent months ago, something board members say they would have communicated if asked.

"I would hope, in the future that instead of just passing laws, expecting us to do something, that we need to be at the table," Porter said. "We need to be involved in the discussion so we can come up with something that works for everybody instead of having something imposed on us that we cannot do."

Rep. Steve Huebert, chair of the House Education Committee, said he is frustrated with the Kansas State Board of Education, as the two attempt to find common ground on a series of changes to curriculum and graduation requirements.

Computer science course effort  

The tension isn't new. Huebert pointed to a 2019 effort, when House Republicans pushed a bill aimed at expanding computer science offerings in schools.

The bill would have allowed districts to let students count a computer science class toward fulfilling their core math and science graduation requirements.

The legislation didn't gain traction, and it would have only amounted to a recommendation to the state board.

But after years of weighing the merits of such a move, the board of education opted to approve that exact same language Tuesday, with proponents arguing it was a key move toward helping to modernize curriculum.

While there are hundreds of computer science courses being taught across the state, only 19 teachers statewide are specifically endorsed to teach the subject. The exact content of those courses vary, and in order to satisfy the the math or science requirement, a class must be deemed sufficiently rigorous.

Sierra Vaughn, a recent graduate from Wichita State University, told the board she felt her high school computer science offering left her "immensely unprepared" from the college-level classes she wound up taking.

"We’re failing to prepare Kansas students for lifelong success when computer science isn’t even an option," she said.

While advocates point out that Kansas is one of two states not to allow computer science to count towards graduation, detractors argue this is because of the unique nature of the state's requirements.

Huebert said it shouldn't have taken several years for the board to act on what was, in effect, the same idea proposed by the Legislature two years ago. He argued the state was still trailing its peers when it comes to education in computer science.

"Good faith effort is being made," he said. "But this is not going to make the improvements to get what I would say, the bang for the buck is when we make funding decisions, and we are meeting court requirements on funding."

Two parties signal attempt at finding common ground — for now

Meanwhile, the board of education and the Kansas State Department of Education are forging ahead with a task force to review the state's graduation requirement, with potential recommendations to freshen up a slate of mandates that officials argue are out of date.

“Every 20 or 30 years, we ought to look at those," KSDE Commissioner Randy Watson said Tuesday.

Randy Watson, commissioner of the Kansas State Department of Education, discusses state funding for K-12 public schools Wednesday at a state board of education meeting.

The panel will include board members, teachers, superintendents, local school board members — but no legislators, which rankled Huebert. Watson said Wednesday a final decision hasn't been made yet on the taskforce membership.

Huebert noted that including the Legislature in the graduation requirement effort, as well as a separate listening tour Watson is set to conduct across the state, would help boost relations.

He noted there remained a "very strong desire to work together."

"We are willing and wanting to work together," Huebert said, "and hoping that we can make improvements and tear down the walls and the turf battles that are not helping our kids, our kids get the education we want them to get."

Other state board members suggested a summit between with top legislators and the Kansas Board of Regents, allowing potential policy priorities to be hashed out sooner rather than later.

But they also are working on a public statement, effectively drawing a line in the sand for their counterparts across the street. 

"If they cross the line, the olive branch turns into a hammer," said McNiece, the state board of education member from Wichita. "We’ll play nice but there are rules. The constitution sets the rules and you’re out of bounds. And that’s when you bring in the officials, the Supreme Court, the judges, and they say you’re out of bounds."