Bills filed in the Kansas Legislature could help solve the district’s teacher shortage — or worsen its money problems.
- Pending education bills could hurt Wichita Public Schools by changing how to count enrollment — and allot state tax dollars.
- The district is pushing for alternative ways to certify teachers amid a shortage in classrooms.
- The district wants the state to fulfill its commitment to funding 92% of special education costs.
Few institutions in Kansas have as much at stake when lawmakers gather in Topeka than the state’s largest school district.
What the Legislature does or doesn’t do this year will determine the flow of state tax dollars to Wichita Public Schools, the ultimate cost or savings of closing some schools and how Kansas might attract new educators to fix a teacher shortage.
“We always put that asterisk of what if Topeka … blank,” Superintendent Kelly Bielefeld said during the January school board meeting. “What if they do something that’s going to really change things for us?”
Some education bills filed so far in 2024 align with what Wichita schools have been asking for, like adding options for teacher certification.
Others — like one that would change the rules for counting enrollment — could worsen the district’s money problems.
Funding when enrollment changes
Kansas schools get state tax money based on enrollment. But there’s a delay before students get counted.
Under current law, school districts can count enrollment based either on the most recent year or two years ago. They typically pick the larger number to get the most state aid.
That doesn’t let growing districts submit an even higher figure based on their current enrollment. Districts like Wichita, where enrollment keeps dropping, benefit from the current system.
Two bills to change that calculation got hearings in January.
They would let most districts use enrollment from the current year or the previous year. If a district has closed any schools during the previous year, as Wichita is contemplating, it could only use current enrollment numbers.
That would cause an unexpected hit to Wichita’s budget, especially if the district finalizes a plan to close schools this year inspired by a $42 million budget shortfall.
”If they make that operational next year, based on all the planning we’ve already been doing,” Bielefeld said, “that creates huge challenges.”
He wants the Legislature to give districts at least a year’s notice before restricting districts from using enrollment from two years ago.
Another bill would let districts use their current enrollment if they’d prefer or use enrollment from up to two years ago.
The teacher pipeline
USD 259 faces hundreds of vacant positions and expects hundreds more staff members to retire at the end of the school year.
It wants more flexibility in teacher hiring and licensing to make it easier to get a substitute teacher license, transfer a teaching license from another state or move into the teaching profession.
It’s particularly pushing for alternative pathways for people with experience in high-demand subjects such as math, science and special education to become teachers. Two pending education bills, both of which have hearings scheduled this week, would do that.
Instead of getting an education degree from a college or university, teachers could use an established alternative program — one that operates in at least five states, has existed for at least 10 years, and that instructs and tests students on subject matter and teaching skills.
Applicants would still need to hold a bachelor’s degree or higher to qualify.
Other school funding bills
USD 259’s legislative priorities include an increase in funding for career and technical education students and special education students.
Wichita Public Schools wants the state to increase the weighting for career and technical education students when it calculates funding.
One bill takes a different angle, creating a way for the state to reimburse schools when they pay for students to obtain industry credentials, such as covering their exam fees.
The district also asked the state to fulfill its commitment to funding 92% of special education costs.
Without full funding, “millions of dollars in local funds are used to offset the (special education) funding gap when it could be used elsewhere to benefit all students,” the district says in the document.
Lawmakers are discussing a bill to abolish a special education task force and create a new task force that would propose changes to the school funding formula and special education funding by early 2027.
Schools are preparing for an open enrollment law, which would allow students to attend public schools outside of their home districts, to go into effect later this year.
The open enrollment program — which might increase or lower any given district’s enrollment — is a source of uncertainty for Wichita Public Schools that could cost it some state tax dollars.
Lawmakers are already considering tweaks to the program.
One bill would let out-of-state students participate in open enrollment, but only if space remains after all interested Kansas students have enrolled.
Another bill would let students who start attending school in a district they don’t live in stay in that district until they graduate high school, as long as they’re in good standing.
Two other education bills would make it easier for private and home-schooled students or virtual school students, respectively, to opt out of public schools without missing out on all of their benefits.
Those students could still participate in local public school activities such as sports, debate and music — anything regulated by the Kansas State High School Activities Association. Schools wouldn’t be allowed to charge them higher activities fees or force them to enroll in classes not required for other students involved in the activity.
The activities association wouldn’t be allowed to ban private school students who enroll part-time in public school from participating in their private schools’ activities if they prefer.
According to the fiscal note for the virtual school bill, it could increase public schools’ costs to have additional students involved in activities, but it isn’t clear how big the impact would be.
This article was republished here with the permission of: The Wichita Beacon