Monday, January 7, 2013

New House Education Committee chairwoman sees busy session ahead with finance, collective bargaining issues

By PETER HANCOCK, The Lawrence Journal-World

State Rep. Kasha Kelley has never served on the House Education Committee before. In her first four terms in the Legislature, the Arkansas City Republican has mainly been known as a leading conservative voice on the tax and budget committees.

So it came as something of a surprise when newly elected House Speaker Ray Merrick named Kelley to serve as chairwoman of the education panel in the upcoming session.

“The speaker asked me if I would chair the committee, and beyond that I think you have to ask him,” Kelley said in a recent interview when asked how the appointment came about.

Despite her lack of experience in managing education bills, Kelley said she’s aware of the hefty load of issues that could come up in the 2013 session.

Those include fallout from the pending school finance lawsuit and the possibility of revisiting Gov. Sam Brownback’s plan to overhaul school finance, as well as a recommendation from the governor’s School Efficiency Task Force to narrow collective bargaining rights for teachers.

“My modus operandi when I get into a new situation is that I try to be all ears for a little while and just listen and understand where people are and what their interests are,” Kelley said.

School finance

Last year, Brownback introduced a plan to dramatically overhaul the formula used to decide how much state aid each school district gets. Among other things, it would have eliminated most of the weighting factors used to send extra money to districts with high poverty rates and large non-English speaking populations. It also would have eliminated the “equalization” aid that subsidizes bond and interest payments for less wealthy districts.

In place of those items, Brownback’s plan would provide a flat, per-pupil funding mechanism that would roughly equal the amount of money schools get currently, and it would have removed the cap on the amount of money districts can raise on their own through local property taxes.

That plan died last year in the Senate Education Committee, which at the time was dominated by a coalition of moderate Republicans and Democrats. In the elections that followed in November, however, conservative Republicans took control of the Senate and increased their control in the House, leading to widespread speculation that Brownback’s school finance plan could be revived in the 2013 session.

“I know that there is an interest in looking at the school finance formula, and I suspect that if nothing else we’ll have some hearings on it,” Kelley said. “I will tell you that I personally believe that’s an area that hasn’t been explored enough. And when I say that, I mean that I don’t know if we’re spending too much or too little, and I don’t personally believe that we’ve ever looked into it at a depth that we would actually know.”

One thing that could complicate the discussion on school finance is a court decision on a pending lawsuit that alleges the current funding levels are unconstitutionally low. Trial in that case was held last summer, and a decision from a three-judge panel that heard the case is expected at any time.

Regardless of how the judges rule, most observers say the case is certain to be appealed. But Kelley said she believes the Legislature will still need to grapple with the fallout from the case this session.

“I suspect if we see a replay of 2005, that’ll become a fairly central issue,” Kelley said, referring to the Kansas Supreme Court’s ruling in a previous school finance case in which the court ordered the Legislature to increase school funding.

“One thing about my personality, and that I absolutely loathe about government, is the kicking (issues) down the road,” Kelley said. “To me, education has always been a political football. And it’s an issue that makes or breaks some people’s elections. And I frankly think that is, I’d almost go to the point of saying, immoral. And I don’t mean to sound sanctimonious about that. At the end of the day, it doesn’t ever seem like (we address) the true goal, which is the best education for our children.”

Teachers unions

Kelley also said she expects the Education Committee to take up a recommendation from the governor’s School Efficiency Task Force to “revise/narrow the Professional Negotiations Act.”

That’s the state law that sets out the rights of teachers unions to engage in collective bargaining for salaries and other working conditions.

In their draft report, approved in December, the task force said: “The current topics (and) categories that are subject to negotiation limit the basic ability for a district superintendent to efficiently manage district resources.”

“I do think it’ll be coming up,” Kelley said. “At the very least I would like to see teachers have a choice of unions. I’m not anti-union at all. I think there are some purposes that they serve. But perhaps being able to broaden what union they choose to be in might be something worth looking at. The hearings will be very important to me on this. And I think will be very important to the education committee.”

The 2013 legislative session begins Monday, Jan. 14.