TOPEKA — Rep. Marc Rhoades stepped down as chairman of the House Appropriations Committee on Monday after publicly questioning the House leadership’s proposed school finance solution.
Some conservative lawmakers say the plan put forward by House leaders, House Bill 2774, allots too much new money to schools and fails to tie funding to reforms or performance. On Monday, they targeted an amendment that proposes to cut virtual schooling by 50 percent, or $14 million.
The Legislature faces a July 1 deadline to close gaps in funding between school districts after a March 7 decision by the Kansas Supreme Court.
Rhoades, R-Newton, had sought unsuccessfully to include a series of reforms – including a rapid expansion of charter schools – in a previous version of the bill.
He was tasked with overseeing the House bill as chairman of the Appropriations Committee and said Monday that he could not do that.
In a statement, he said that the House leadership’s funding plan was unsustainable and that it had “gone through numerous alterations outside the committee process without the committee once having worked the bill.” He also has questioned attaching $129 million as the amount needed to close disparities in local option budget and capital outlay money, the two areas the court identified as inequitable.
“None of the spending is tied to measurable education outcomes,” Rhoades said in his statement. “I regret I see no option but, respectfully, to resign as chair of appropriations to allow leadership to move forward.”
The House leadership’s plan will require about $94 million in new money, according to the Kansas Legislative Research Department.
The resignation came just before the committee embarked on two days of hearings on the bill, which House leaders had hoped to have in place before the Legislature adjourns at the end of this week for a break.
House Speaker Ray Merrick, R-Stilwell, issued a short statement Monday that announced Rep. Gene Suellentrop, R-Wichita, as the committee’s new chairman and appointed Rep. Joe Seiwert, R-Pretty Prairie, to fill the empty committee seat.
“I regret that Representative Rhoades came to this decision. I respect Marc and had complete faith in his abilities as chair. However, we will continue to move forward and work on an education plan that makes school funding equitable across the state,” Merrick said.
Suellentrop, who had been vice chairman of the committee, said he hoped to get a bill passed out of the committee “within a matter of a couple days.” He predicted the bill might be ready for the House floor by Wednesday morning.
Virtual schools cut
An amendment introduced at the request of the House leadership would reduce spending for virtual schools, among other things, to help free up cash in the education budget. That would put the House bill more in line with a plan floated by the Senate leadership last week.
“I think there’s been a lot of that effort to come to some sort of an understanding by leadership on both sides, perhaps even with the governor, and the balloon amendment that’s been introduced has been a request of leadership to move this bill forward, and that I will pursue,” Suellentrop said.
Rep. Kasha Kelley, R-Arkansas City, another member of the committee, complained last week that the House leadership’s plan did not include enough reforms. On Monday, she objected to cutting funding for virtual schools.
“You have students out there who need a different setting, and frankly, if we’re interested in educating all students in Kansas, far be it for us to take those additional settings away,” she said.
She cited testimony from parents of virtual school students who contended their children did not have their needs met in traditional public schools but are now flourishing in virtual schools. Kelley said cutting virtual schools might force those students to go back to traditional public schools.
“Does it really make sense to … put them back into a more expensive system that they don’t function well in?” Kelley said.
Rep. Brett Hildabrand, R-Shawnee, tweeted that he would not support a bill that cuts virtual schools.
During morning and afternoon meetings, parents from around the state testified before committee members, begging them to rethink the virtual schools cut.
Some said their children had been bullied at traditional public schools, while others said that it had allowed them to continue their education despite health problems.
Michelle Otte, a mother of four boys, said her son Jacob, who has Asperger’s syndrome, has done better with online learning because he faces less distraction than in a traditional classroom.
“My children deserve to continue to flourish in a school. It is a public school that is meeting all of their individual needs. Virtual school works for them,” she said. She said a 50 percent cut could force her sons’ virtual school, InSight School, to close.
Heather Kobach, wife of Secretary of State Kris Kobach, got up with her young daughters and warned the committee that the funding cut would cause virtual schools to close.
With tears in her eyes, Kobach described herself as a “home-schooling mother who is part of the virtual school system.”
“It’s the one opportunity that supplies choice in public schools,” she said, contending that virtual schools bring “market forces” to K-12 education by offering competition to “bricks and mortar schools.”
Both the Kansas Association of School Boards and the Kansas National Education Association warned against taking funds from other pots of money to satisfy the court’s order for equity.
Mark DeSetti, spokesman for the Kansas National Education Association, said legislators were considering a 50 percent cut without any study of what virtual schools cost to run. He asked the committee to pass a clean bill that does not make reductions to any part of the budget, as the Democratic plan would do.