TOPEKA — Senate President Ty Masterson and Rep. Kristey Williams delivered a series of inaccurate statements on gun violence, public school cuts and special education funding during an hourlong public forum Saturday in Augusta.
The forum took place a day after the Senate rejected legislation crafted by Williams to create a private school voucher program. Lawmakers adjourned for spring break in the early morning hours of April 7.
Williams, an Augusta Republican, and Masterson, a Wichita Republican, complained about public school performance and made their case for using taxpayer funds to incentivize attendance at unregulated private schools.
In an interview, Liz Meitl, a public school teacher in Kansas City, Kansas, said Masterson and Williams were misrepresenting K-12 pubic education information.
“What they’re doing is creating circumstances in which the Kansas public can’t have conversations about real change or real improvement,” Meitl said. “They’re gaslighting us as a whole state.”
School funding cuts
Masterson falsely claimed there was no funding cut to public schools under former Gov. Sam Brownback, even though the state repeatedly slashed public school funding between 2008 and 2016, years when Masterson was in the Legislature.
“That’s the biggest lie out there in the ether, is that there was this big cut in schools,” Masterson said. “The only governor that actually hard cut schools — which was less-money-in-subsequent-years, I-got-less-than-I-did-before cut definition — the only governor that cut schools was Mark Parkinson.”
Parkinson, a Democrat, executed several rounds of school budget cuts in response to the 2008 recession, leading schools to file a lawsuit in 2010, the year Brownback was elected. The Legislature again lowered the amount of money the state provides public schools after Brownback took office in 2011.
As the state lost a series of legal challenges for underfunding schools, the Legislature replaced a formula that dated to 1992 with a two-year block grant to school districts. The Kansas Supreme Court determined the grants, which lowered K-12 school funding and eliminated extra aid for students in poverty, were unconstitutional.
Legislators and lobbyists who propose spending less on public schools sometimes conflate the distinction between state aid, which pays for teacher salaries and classroom expenses, with local bond projects and federal aid for food and transportation.
“K-12 never got less money. And that’s just math,” Masterson said.
Senate and House lawmakers reached a deal last week to cut $76.3 million in base state aid from public school funding, but neither chamber voted on the proposal before adjourning.
The funding bill was criticized because of the cuts, and also because it was a massive piece of legislation that blended state funding for K-12 education with provisions from nine other bills, including a form of parental rights legislation and an extension of the statewide mill levy that generates revenue for public schools.
Special education funding
Williams told the crowd that special education was overfunded in some districts, even though the state has underfunded special education for years.
The Kansas Association of School Boards estimates the state is about $160 million short of the special education funding required by state law.
During this year’s session, Williams attempted to combine funding to close part of the gap on special education with an unpopular private school voucher program. The proposal narrowly passed the House and was defeated in the Senate before lawmakers adjourned last week.
“There’s 149 school districts out of 286 that are exceeding the excess cost,” Williams said. “Some are up to 300% and some are 60%. And we’ve got to equalize that.”
Meitl said Williams was misrepresenting the situation because costs are determined by an individual’s needs. Some districts, Meitl said, have higher numbers of students with specific needs, and the special education costs reflect varying needs across districts.
“That’s like budget jargon,” Meitl said. “If humans were numbers, then sure, we could do that. But we’re not. Humans are variable. And needs are different and needs present out of nowhere.”
Under Kansas law, the state is supposed to provide 92% of the extra costs of special education, but the Legislature hasn’t met this requirement since 2011.
While the federal government is supposed to provide up to 40% of special education funding as stipulated by legislation Congress passed in 1990, only about 13% has been provided. Districts have had to divert funds from general education programs to pay for special education costs.
Gov. Laura Kelly’s proposed budget would add $72.4 million for special education every year for the next five years to meet the statutory requirement.
“We must put Kansas on track to fully fund special education because every child deserves the chance to learn and thrive,” Kelly said in a Monday news release.
With the COVID-19 pandemic, years of underfunding, and struggles with providing special education care, public school officials say they need time, support and funding to return better results.
Williams said funding voucher programs would help more students in Kansas. She referenced a form of a voucher plan that failed to pass the Legislature. The program would’ve provided students attending nonpublic schools with the equivalent of 95% of base state aid, which is about $5,000.
Any nonpublic preschool, elementary or high school that teaches reading, grammar, mathematics, social studies and science would be eligible to benefit financially from the proposed law, including schools that are unaccredited. The schools wouldn’t be subject to governmental oversight. Religious objects, such as Bibles, could be bought with state dollars.
“It provides all students with the opportunity for enrichment, whether they choose a private or a public school,” Williams said. “We’re waiting for action on the Senate side on that.”
The House approved the bill on a 65-58 vote, but it failed 17-20 in the Senate.
Critics of the proposal say public dollars shouldn’t be used on public schools, more than half of Kansas counties don’t have private schools, the majority of the money would go to children already enrolled in private schools, and the program would have used federal COVID-19 aid to pay for the first year, with funding taken from the state after federal dollars ran out.
Some also argued that $5,000 wouldn’t actually be enough to help lower-income families pay for private education. One Augusta resident who said she was at the federal poverty level asked if the education fund would help send her child to a private school.
“I’m not sure how you would do it at that poverty level because you’re only going to get your grant award, which wouldn’t cover but a fraction of the tuition,” Masterson said.
Masterson defended the idea of providing gun training at a young age after one Augusta resident spoke against a proposed NRA gun program for public schools.
The resident asked Masterson to carefully consider the bill, which has been debated for years. The proposed legislation, which was sent to the governor for consideration April 4, would encourage elementary and middle school students to participate in the Eddie Eagle program, an NRA-developed child gun safety curriculum.
From kindergarten through grade five, Kansas children in participating school districts would be instructed with the Eddie Eagle program, and grades six through eight would either use Eddie Eagle or other gun programs offered by the Kansas Department of Wildlife and Parks.
In an average year, 456 people die and 655 are wounded by guns in Kansas, according to Everytown for Gun Safety statistics. The organization estimated that gun deaths and injuries cost Kansas $5.7 billion each year, of which $95.1 million is paid by taxpayers.
Critics of the bill have said the training program isn’t effective. They lobby for stricter gun laws rather than child gun training.
“It is always an adult’s responsibility to prevent unauthorized access to guns, not a curious child’s responsibility to avoid guns,” said Cori Sherman North, a volunteer with the Kansas chapter of Moms Demand Action in an April 10 news release. “Kansas lawmakers should be passing bills to help curb gun violence, not misplacing responsibility on children.”
Masterson said he didn’t understand resistance to the program.
“As a gun owner myself and an advocate of the Second Amendment, I taught my own kids,” Masterson said. “When they were young, I’d set an unloaded gun out and see how they would respond to it. They’d answer what I told them to do.”
Williams said she believes most mass shooters are coming from fatherless households, though it is unclear where she got this statistic.
“Guns and the Second Amendment have been around since the founding of our nation. What is driving this change? If you look at the mass shooters that have occurred since Columbine, I believe the statistic is 75% come from fatherless homes,” Williams said. “I think what we need to do as a society is look at what’s impacting our kids, what’s causing harm to our kids.”
In their 2020 database records, the Violence Project, which tracks mass shooters, listed 29 out of 173 mass shooters as coming from single-parent households, though there was no mention of a parent’s gender.
“Lawmakers should focus on actually taking measures to save lives from gun violence, not pushing narratives based in racist tropes,” said Tonya Boyd, a volunteer with the Kansas chapter of Moms Demand Action, in response for this story to Williams’ statement.