By Madelynn Coldiron
The lead-up to the 2014 session of the General Assembly was enough to dim any optimism among K-12 education advocates – with lawmakers effectively discouraging their funding requests by citing the tight money situation and many other needs, a familiar refrain over the last several budget cycles.
But in the end, “It was a huge win for K-12 education,” said Shannon Stiglitz, KSBA’s governmental relations director.
The next biennial budget will increase SEEK, the state’s base school funding, by $189 over two years. The heretofore fiscally starved Flexible Focus funds, which encompass Extended School Services, professional development, safe schools, textbooks and other instructional materials, were increased significantly. There is more money for school technology, both for devices and increasing bandwidth in networks. Preschool funding holds steady for the first year of the budget, with an increase the second year.
“I’m a whole lot more pleased this year than last, let me put it that way,” said Hancock County school board member Allen Kennedy, who was among the board members who helped with KSBA’s advocacy efforts during the session.
School staff also will be getting a mandatory 1 percent raise the first year and a 2 percent raise the second year – offsetting a large chunk of the SEEK increase.
After educators had been beating the fiscal drum for K-12 education over many previous legislative sessions, what changed in 2014?
“I think what made the difference this time is the governor set the tone of making K-12 education a priority and I think education advocates continued to push for keeping that a priority. I think many of the conversations that superintendents and board members and all kinds of educators had over the summer and fall with legislators helped,” Stiglitz said. “No one wants to see Kentucky’s students fall behind, and I think all of those things culminated to make it a priority.”
Kennedy agreed: “It doesn’t matter if it’s your church or your local leadership, you kind of take on the personality of the things your leader prioritizes and I think that’s what the legislature did to a large degree this year.”
By the time the session rolled around, the more negative statements legislators had been making over the summer were toned down, with many realizing K-12 education must be a priority, Stiglitz said.
New calendar parameters
Lawmakers dickered but eventually passed the so-called “snow days” legislation, aimed at giving school districts calendar relief this year after some missed more than 30 days over the wild winter of 2013-14. But while most attention was focused on the immediate situation, the legislature also hammered out permanent language that will affect school calendars from here on out.
House Bill 211 says the school year must be 1,062 instructional hours and 170 instructional days, replacing the old requirement of the equivalent of 175 six-hour instructional days. It also states if a district amends its calendar due to emergency, it can shorten or lengthen the remaining days by as much as 30 minutes within the instructional hours/days parameters, though no day can exceed seven hours.
The new calendar law also expands snowbound project language in existing law, which provides for alternative options such as virtual learning. With the change, this provision is no longer restricted to districts that have missed more than 20 days over three consecutive school years.
Other high-profile passages
School data will become more secure under a pair of bills that won passage during this session. One will protect student data by requiring cloud computing service companies to certify that they will not use the data for proprietary purposes. The other requires any state agency, including school districts, to adopt notification policies in the event of a data breach.
A bill squeaked through during the final hours of the session that requires more training hours for school board members taking office for initial terms on or after Jan. 1, 2015, and also tightens requirements for school finance officers. Current board members and finance officers are grandfathered in.
While it won’t likely affect many school employees, a new law will make clear that the state will pay the health insurance premiums of any school employee who is made eligible for health insurance as a result of the Affordable Care Act. This helps take the pressure off local districts to limit employee work weeks to 30 hours to avoid paying health insurance premiums.
Also winning passage and taking effect in March was a bill that will help school districts that are strapped for registered nurses to meet the health-care needs of some students. The new law will allow trained, nonlicensed school staff to administer diabetes and seizure disorder medication to students, with some stipulations, and also permit students to self-administer their diabetes medications.
The state’s juvenile justice reform, which was approved during the session’s final days, encourages community-based alternatives rather than detention centers for children under 18 who are charged with status offenses such as truancy or being a runaway.
Significant education bills stall
Other high-profile pieces of education legislation did not become law this session, or even come close. Despite a much-hyped hearing on a bill to repeal the Common Core State Standards (aka the Kentucky Core Academic Standards), the move did not gain traction. Other curriculum mandates were also halted, including a bill that would have allowed school councils to adopt more rigorous curriculum standards beyond the Common Core, Stiglitz noted.
Charter schools made a repeat appearance in a bill that would have allowed 41 of the state’s persistently low-achieving schools to form charters. It passed the Senate but died in the House. However, the climate this time around was a bit different from the past, Stiglitz said.
“More supporters within the traditional public school community did come to rise in support of it,” she said, including Education Commissioner Terry Holliday and representatives from the Kentucky Chamber of Commerce and Kentucky Youth Advocates. “I think it is a sign that the charter school movement is picking up some steam.”
Another perennial topic, the state’s prevailing wage law, also made no progress. A bill that would have excluded school construction from the law was defeated in committee.
And a bill that would have permitted Districts of Innovation to implement new testing methods to assess student performance did not gain traction.
This session saw superintendents, board members and other educators connecting with legislators who are usually outside the education arena, Stiglitz said. They were negotiating, for example, with chairmen of the Judiciary committees on a juvenile justice reform bill and working with lawmakers on Health and Welfare committees on that bill that allows trained school personnel to administer diabetes and other medication in school settings. Stiglitz said this could be helpful in the future.
“I think it’s always helpful when you are able to carry your message to folks who typically aren’t aware of your issues or how your business works,” she said. “I think what it says is, one, we can do it and two, it also makes it clear that there are new relationships that need to be forged so that when these issues come up we have the relationships and we can continue to educate all legislators on what’s important for public education.”
Click here to see a condensed list of education issues that did and did not pass.