The buzzer has officially sounded for the halftime mark of the 2024 Legislative session. The most commonly heard expression this time of year between legislative professionals is, “Well, we’re halfway done.” This is generally followed up by, “How is your session going?” 

Which begs the question, how is the session going for KNEA? 

So far, so good. Relatively speaking, of course. 

The critical issue of special education funding has received a lot of attention but no real action. Nothing outside Governor Kelly’s budget has been proposed to fund special education fully. At the same time, fuzzy math schemes to change the formula in a way that would allow the state to falsely claim that it is funding special education at the statutorily mandated level of 92% are also stuck in idle. This issue is not dead. We expect a robust debate to take place on this issue soon.

A motion to advance the only voucher bill to receive a hearing this session was rejected in the Senate Committee on Education on a voice vote. The bill remains in the committee, and it is hard to tell where that issue goes from here. Republican leadership in both the House and Senate seem very reluctant to take action on an issue slated for an automatic veto. Particularly after the house failed by three votes to override Governor Kelly’s veto of a tax reform bill that was widely considered unfair to everyone except the wealthy. The exclamation mark on leadership’s reluctance to dive too deeply into the voucher issue is that 2024 is an election year. The elephant in the room is Johnson County. This elephant went from deep red to pink to dark purple. In other words, this former Republican stronghold has become a growing stronghold for Democrats. Many old-timers credit the issue of education as the reason for this dramatic shift. With all 165 legislators on the ballot this November, many Johnson County Republicans do not want to be forced to take any pro-voucher votes that are headed for a veto that doesn’t have the votes to be overridden. The 2024 voucher effort is widely considered an effort in futility. 

All this being said, The Kansas Legislature is as consistent as the weather right outside the walls of the Statehouse. And much like the Kansas weather, the Kansas legislature can go from sunny to stormy quickly. The voucher threat is alive and well, and we have to stay alert.

KPERS reform has been a real disappointment thus far. This is the issue that seemed to have a ton of promise and momentum going into the 2024 session. There was widespread agreement that seemed to unite factions of all political stripes that KPERS Tier 3 was terribly inadequate. KPERS Tier 3 covers all our members hired after January 2015. The inception of KPERS Tier 3 was a necessary evil at the time. The state was in the middle of a budgetary crisis that included ramifications that were widespread. The KPERS Unfunded actuarial liability (the outstanding benefits that were owed) had grown dangerously large. A bipartisan group of leaders came together to save KPERS by creating Tier 3. Now that the state of Kansas has moved back into healthy financial territory, many people seem to agree that 2024 was the year of Tier 3 reform. Yet here we are, getting ready to enter the second half of the legislative session with nothing to show in the way of offense on this issue. The Chiefs taught us this year that you can win the Super Bowl going into the second half without a touchdown, but they also had Patrick Mahomes leading the way. We’re not sure we even have a quarterback to take the lead on the KPERS issue. Without a quarterback, achieving “paydirt” will be really challenging. 

This is tremendously disappointing. Tier 3 reform is an issue that would have made a REAL impact on the lives of Kansans on many fronts. Not only would Tier 3 reform set forth a dignified path of retirement for tens of thousands of public servants and their families, but it would also add a new tool in the teacher recruitment and retention toolbox. We will continue to work hard on this issue. Let us hope that someone will step up and do the right thing. 

Funding for PreK-12 public education (that we hope satisfies the Kansas Constitution) is an issue that is almost always pushed into the waning days of the legislative session. The Senate has recommended over $120 million in less funding than Governor Kelly in her budget recommendation. Key Senators have indicated that much of the money that they failed to recommend will eventually end up in the final budget, but that remains to be seen. The Kansas Supreme Court ruling that compelled the legislature to fund public education at constitutional levels stood as a safeguard should irresponsible urges take hold. Unfortunately, the Kansas Supreme Court relinquished its jurisdiction over the case. The impact of this ruling will become clearer in the upcoming weeks, but it seems certain that those legislators who are inclined to be troublemakers in the school funding debate are feeling more empowered. 

“Culture War” issues affecting our students have been on display this session, but not with as much zeal as in previous sessions. This could be for some of the same reasons listed above on vouchers. A bill that would have allowed schools to hire chaplains and a bill that would’ve allowed politicians to regulate school libraries did not advance. This should mean that the proposals are stalled, but that is not exactly the case. They could be resurrected at any time to be inserted in other bills. Two very discriminatory anti-transgender bills will be heard later this week. The fate of these bills is uncertain. 

Engagement In the Process

KNEA has been very vocal about being left out of the process in the last few sessions. As a result, some legislators are finding ways for us to give input. We have been invited to offer amendments to some key pieces of legislation. Our amendments have been well received and included. In other cases, our testimony appears to be the driving factor behind a few amendments to bills that we were opposed to. That is a step in the right direction, but we are a long way from having the impact that we need to have on the process.

Additionally, our goal was to have as many as 75 members visit the Statehouse this session to help with our advocacy efforts. We have partnered with KNEA siblings on various events and estimate that close to 50 members have participated in person at the Kansas Statehouse this session. We plan to host more members at the Statehouse in the second half of the 2024 legislative session.

Looking Ahead

The first half of the 2024 Legislative session has been relatively uneventful. Though it is easy to feel relieved, this should not be an indication to do so. As mentioned above, Key legislators are looking to KNEA with positivity. Unfortunately, there are a handful of key legislators who are not inclined to coordinate with us on a positive level. The largest threat hanging in the balance as we look to engage the second half of the legislative session is the dreaded “mega-bills” that emerge in the final days of every session.  

A small handful of legislators have made it a habit of taking several non-controversial pieces of legislation, bundling them into one bill, and throwing one or two pieces of controversial legislation into a “mega-bill” in an attempt to force everyone to accept the full package. This is a game that has become all too common. It is ripe with bad intentions and has no place in the process. The good news is that many legislators on both sides of the political aisle are tired of such tactics. Let’s hope this session will see the tide turning against this practice.

Stay Tuned.