House defeats in-person education bill

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The Kansas House Tuesday defeated a bill backed by the Senate president that would have required public schools to offer full, in-person learning no later than March 26.

The House voted 69-55 to defeat the bill, which was introduced by Senate President Ty Masterson, who said remote education during the pandemic caused student learning to fall behind and placed a burden on parents.

The opposition to the bill included a coalition of Democrats joining with conservative and moderate Republicans.

Critics said the bill was driven by an emotional desire to see children return to the classroom and imposes a state mandate that runs counter to legislative efforts to let local governments make their own decisions about public health orders.

They also said the legislation would limit the ability of school districts to make decisions to close when circumstances merit at any time in the future.

The vote took school boards lobbyist Mark Tallman by surprise.

“We felt the bill was inappropriate because it would overrride local control of decisions during this pandemic,” Tallman said.

“We also were concerned that it made no exceptions or changes going forward,” he said.

“As we read the bill, it would basically say you could never provide remote learning without also having an in-person option, which we think does not take into account possible changes in the future,” he said.

“We thought there could be long-rage unintended consquences,” he said.

Late Monday, it appeared that the in-person education bill would conflict with the new emergency management bill the Legislature had crafted.

The new emergency management bill developed by a House-Senate conference committee only allows school boards to close schools.

However, Masterson’s bill required schools to make available an in-person education option for students.

“We’re giving them the authority to operate schools, close schools, but (Senate bill) 235 says you have to have an in-person option,” said Republican state Rep. Fred Patton, chairman of the House Judiciary Committee.

Patton was skeptical that the two bills represented a “true conflict.”

He conceived a possibility for how school districts could be given the authority to operate schools but still be required to have an in-person option.

Patton along with Republican state Rep. Brad Ralph, who both were on the conference committee that drafted the emergency management bill, cast votes against the school bill.

House Speaker Ron Ryckman Jr. said confusion about how both bills might interfere with each other may have led to the defeat of the school bill.

“It seemed like there were enough people that were concerned that there was a conflict,” Ryckman said.

Data from the state education department shows that many school districts are already returning to the classroom.

Only 20 school districts across the state provide remote learning in elementary, middle or high school.

Two hundred and seventy-four of the state’s 286 school districts now have returned to in-person instruction in elementary school.

Nine school districts offer a hybrid instruction for elementary schools, and three are remote.

Meanwhile, 245 of the state’s 286 school disticts now have returned to in-person instruction in middle school. Thirty-three districts provide hybrid instruction for middle schools, and eight are remote.

For high schools, 240 of the state’s 286 school districts now have returned to in-person instruction, while 37 provide hybrid instruction and nine are remote.