New Faces Lead Kansas Legislative Education Panels

4798Veteran conservative Kansas legislators with diverse backgrounds will be at the center of education debates during the 2013 legislative session, one that is expected to renew discussion on policy issues long relegated to the back burner.

In this Monday, May 7, 2012, photo, Kansas state Sen. Steve Abrams, right, an Arkansas City Republican, confers with Sen. Ray Merrick, center, a Stilwell Republican, and Rep. Leslie Osterman, a Wichita Republican, during a break in a meeting at the Statehouse, in Topeka, Kan. Abrams is the new chairman of the Senate Education Committee. Photo: John Hanna / AP
Sen. Steve Abrams and Rep. Kasha Kelley, both Arkansas City Republicans, were tapped earlier this month to lead their chamber's education committees. Abrams brings nearly 20 years of elected education leadership, including a stint on the State Board of Education. Kelley has experience serving as vice chairwoman of the House Appropriations Committee.

"I'm excited about it," said Abrams, who was first elected to the Senate in 2008. "I'm willing to talk to almost anybody."

Kelley said she would be visiting with committee members and others to determine the committee's agenda. She, like Abrams, said more focus needs to be placed on changes to the system that help students tap their interests and keep them engaged in learning.

"I know that there are some deep divides in how we deal with education. I always believe that if the common goal is excellence that surely we can find common ground to get there," Kelley said. "That's not to say that we don't do things well now, but we can always do better."

Kelley would like legislators to spend time defining what a suitable education means in Kansas, in particular as it relates to the school finance formula. She would like to see the model of education focus less on driving students toward a four-year college degree, though they must be prepared for that path, and more on career and technical training.

"It has to be more deeply reviewed. We haven't delved into it and it affects the fiscal impact," Kelley said. "I don't know if we spend too much or too little on schools."

Education lobbyists say they aren't surprised by the choice of Abrams as committee chairman given his background, while Kelley's selection is a bit of an unknown considering she's never served on the committee since being elected in 2004.

Mark Tallman of the Kansas Association of School Boards said Kelley is a veteran legislator but will take time to learn education policy and finance as will the large freshman class that was elected in November. There are 49 new House members and four senators new to legislative process.

"There's a lot of unknown. I don't know what their agenda will be," Tallman said. "Our job is we have to do a better job of listening to new folks coming in, listening to their perspectives."

House Minority Leader Paul Davis said there were a number of issues Republicans likely will take a run at, including revisiting teacher bargaining rights during negotiations with school districts. It would follow a trend in other states to clip the wings of state workers and unions, two traditionally reliable Democratic voting blocs.

"The governor's efficiency task force has brought that issue up," said Davis, a Lawrence Democrat. "Many Republicans have long desired to try to punish teachers and unions because they don't necessarily support their political viewpoint.

"I don't see how decreasing teacher salaries make our education system more efficient or a better system."

Abrams and Kelley both said tenure would likely be brought up, but didn't say what changes they would like to see, if any, to how teacher contracts are negotiated and retained.

"I have spoken with teachers and there are differing views out there, but there are issues that need to be addressed," Kelley said, declining to elaborate.

Mark Desetti of the Kansas National Education Association said the departure of moderate Republicans in the Senate would mean issues like teacher negotiations and school vouchers would not be blocked from debate as in previous years. He cautions legislators to look at all the facts before acting too hastily.

"I'm pretty sure things will be tried and I'm trying to be prepared for what I might term the worst and that we don't go there, and that people will look at real research and make appropriate decisions," he said.

Legislators will be receiving two key pieces of information that will guide their deliberations.

A task force appointed by Republican Gov. Sam Brownback is finalizing recommendations for finding efficiencies in how districts spend more than $3 billion in state funds. Some suggestions include consolidating administrative positions, instituting two-year budgets for better planning and modifying teacher negotiation laws to give local school boards more flexibility.

The second and most anticipated event will be a ruling from a three-judge panel in Shawnee County District Court on a lawsuit filed by school districts and parents claiming the state failed to adequately fund education when spending was cut during and after the Great Recession. The ruling is expected to be appealed to the Kansas Supreme Court but could spur debate about how the state should respond in 2014.

Source: The AP
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