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Charter schools bill may transgress state constitution

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Senate Bill 196, dubbed the “Kansas public charter school act”, was first introduced in the 2013 legislative session. The bill would expand the number of charter school authorizers in the state, and facilitate the proliferation of publically-funded but privately-managed charter schools. The bill died in committee last year, but has now resurfaced.

The bill itself contains a declaration of its purpose; to allow “…public charter schools which may operate independently of state laws or rules and regulations…..deemed by the public charter school authorizer to hinder its goals…”.
Freedom from regulations might sound “innovative”; but what constraints, exactly, does the bill do away with? Teacher licensure, prevailing wage laws, teacher due process law, and the professional negotiations act (collective bargaining) could all be ignored at the whim of the charter authorizer. If by “innovative” you mean “stack ‘em deep, and teach ‘em cheap”; Senate Bill 196 is just what you need.

The Kansas Constitution places authority over public schools squarely with the State Board of Education, not the legislature. Article 6(2)(a) states the State Board of Education “…shall have general supervision of public schools, educational institutions and all the educational interests of the state,”. It’s questionable whether the legislature actually has the authority to excuse public schools from requirements set by the state board.

Current law allows only locally elected boards of education to authorize charter schools. This arrangement keeps control of public dollars in the hands of public (elected) leaders. SB 196 expands the list of possible charter school authorizers to include at least six new entities; including the NOT publically elected leadership of private institutions.

The Kansas Constitution requires public schools be operated by democratically-elected school boards. Article 6(5) reads “….public schools…shall be maintained, developed and operated by locally elected boards.” Allowing any other entities to control public schools – and public school funds – is incongruent with our state constitution, and for good reason.

SB 196 is plump with references to “educational management organizations.” An educational management organization, or EMO, is defined therein as “a partnership, nonprofit or business corporation, or any other association, corporation, trust, or other legal entity that enters into a management agreement with a public charter school.” A “management agreement”, also defined in the bill, is “an agreement to provide comprehensive educational, administrative, management, or instructional services or staff to a public charter school.”

This arrangement is tailor-made to facilitate the siphoning of public education funds into private profits. EMO’s, by and large, are in the business of pocketing public school funds; inevitably short-changing our students and the public at large. Extreme marketing budgets, poor student performance, cherry-picking students, increased segregation, inadequate food-service, disregard for safety, high attrition, real estate profiteering, open-meetings violations, junk bonds, and excessive executive compensation are no surprise when it comes to EMO’s.

One corporation imported teachers from the Philippines, providing them with travel loans, paycheck advances, housing, and work visas. The subsequent deluge of hidden fees, rent, commissions, extortion, and other abuses of those teachers bordered on servitude.

Charter school authorizers and management organizations may also have inappropriate ties to religious groups. The largest charter school chain in the nation, and in fact the largest in the world, is operated by the Gulen Movement, a secretive and cult-like religious group originating in Turkey.

The short list of speakers in favor of SB 196 last week included Wade Moore, Pastor of Christian Faith Centre in Wichita, and Darlene Cornfield of the Northfield School of the Liberal Arts. Pastor Moore’s church bought the former Mueller Elementary School building last summer, and plans to turn it into the Urban Preparatory Academy of Wichita – a charter school. Northfield School is a religious institution, and advertises that their students pray together. Northfield describes its science department as a place where students “…renew their wonder at God’s wisdom.”

Governor Sam Brownback might approve such a curriculum, but no legitimate scientist or science educator would. Neither would our state constitution.

Article 6(6)(c) of the Kansas Constitution reads “No religious sect or sects shall control any part of the public educational funds.” SB 196, if its supporters are any indication, seems to encourage the exact opposite.
The only notable non-religious testimony in support of the bill came from the Kansas Policy Institute, a group that predictably supports anything which undermines worker’s rights and defunds public services.

Testifying against the bill were the Kansas National Education Association (a.k.a., public school teachers), Kansas Association of School Boards, Game on for Kansas Schools and the Kansas PTA (a.k.a., parents of public school students), the MainStream Coalition, the Kansas Association of Special Education Administrators, Unified School Administrators, and the school districts of Trego County USD 208, Blue Valley USD 229, KCK USD 500, Topeka USD 501, Goddard USD 265, Wichita USD 259, Bucklin USD 459, and USD 327.

Our legislature needs to listen our professional educators, elected school boards, and the parents of public school students. Our legislature needs to follow our state constitution, and keep our public schools public. Our legislature needs to put Senate Bill 196 back where it belongs – in an early grave.

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