TOPEKA, Kan. — The Kansas Legislature on Sunday narrowly backed a plan that would boost funding to poor school districts while eliminating tenure for teachers.
With red-shirted teachers who have been protesting the tenure provision looking on, 63 House members — the minimum needed — voted in favor of the bill, while 57 voted against it. Hours earlier, the Senate approved it with a 22-16 vote. It needed 21 votes to pass.
The bill, which was the product of a compromise between House and Senate Republicans, now heads to GOP Gov. Sam Brownback. He wasted no time in issuing a statement praising the bill, suggesting he will sign it.
The plan is designed to comply with a Kansas Supreme Court order last month in a lawsuit filed by parents and four school districts in 2010 over education funding. The court directed lawmakers to boost aid to poor districts.
"The school finance bill passed by the Kansas legislature today fully complies with, and indeed exceeds, the requirements of the recent Kansas Supreme Court ruling for funding schools and providing equity," Brownback said in his statement.
The bill also allows districts to levy additional local property taxes to supplement their state aid to get more funds into classrooms.
While the plan helps poor districts, conservative Senate Republicans insisted on eliminating tenure for public school teachers. The proposal brought dozens of red-shirted teachers to the Statehouse to protest.
Officials with the Kansas National Education Association, the state's largest teachers' union, predicted a raft of lawsuits, with individual teachers who are dismissed likely to go to court. David Schauner, the union's general counsel, said after the Senate vote that any teacher who had earned protections should sue if a school district says those protections no longer apply.
Karen Godfrey, the union's president, blasted that initial vote.
"You cannot find a more dedicated professional than a teacher, and to have us be insulted in this manner is very dispiriting," Godfrey said.
Critics of the tenure system say it makes it difficult for administrators to fire poor or abusive teachers. The conservative Republicans who back the legislation said they didn't want to authorize so much new spending without getting some education policy changes. Their efforts to eliminate tenure had the backing of the conservative interest group Americans for Prosperity.
"We need to make sure that the best teachers are in the classrooms," said Jeff Glendening, the group's state director. "It's not about protecting the institutions or the labor union. It's about protecting our kids."
The plan initially was prompted by the Supreme Court's ruling that past, recession-driven cuts in aid to poor school districts create unfair and unconstitutional funding gaps between those districts and wealthier ones. Legislators in both parties consistently have proposed reversing those cuts, and the plan backed by the Senate on Sunday would provide an additional $129 million for poorer districts next school year.
But Republicans also wanted to offset those costs by trimming other types of aid to all school districts and by adjusting the budget outside of education. In addition, conservatives pushed for changes in education policy.
Another part of the bill would give corporations up to $10 million in tax credits for contributing to scholarship funds to help poor and at-risk children attend private schools.
But the tenure provisions inspired the most debate.
Under existing law, after three years on the job, a teacher who's facing dismissal must be told why in writing and has the right to challenge the decision and have a hearing officer review the case. The bill strips teachers of those rights.
The KNEA said the existing law prevents good teachers from being fired for arbitrary reasons. The union had a statewide meeting of hundreds of teachers Saturday, cutting it short so that many of them could converge on the Statehouse to lobby.
Equality Kansas, the state's leading gay-rights organization, also opposed the tenure proposal.
"There are gay and lesbian teachers in this state who are perfectly good teachers, but the only reason they still have their jobs is, even though their administrators wanted to get rid of them because of their sexual orientation, they couldn't," said Tom Witt, the group's executive director. "You take away this protection — it's not like people can go back in the closet."