Celia Llopis-Jepsen

Celia comes to the Kansas News Service after five years at the Topeka Capital-Journal. She brings in-depth experience covering schools and education policy in Kansas as well as news at the Statehouse. In the last year she has been diving into data reporting. At the Kansas News Service she will also be producing more radio, a medium she’s been yearning to return to since graduating from Columbia University with a master’s in journalism.  

Celia also has a master’s degree in bilingualism studies from Stockholm University in Sweden. Before she landed in Kansas, Celia worked as a reporter for The American Lawyer in New York, translated Chinese law articles, and was a reporter and copy editor for the Taipei Times.

 

Kansas lawmakers voted last weekend to increase public school funding over the next half decade — the latest chapter in a long and winding court battle.

Lawmakers may not know for months whether a deal to pump half a billion dollars into schools goes far enough to end seven years of court battles over whether the state shortchanges Kansas children.

If it falls short, the Kansas Supreme Court could call them back to Topeka this summer with yet another ultimatum to send even more money to local districts.

Arm wrestling over a final deal on Kansas school spending begins in earnest Friday after the Senate settled on a figure that’s much lower than the House’s position.

The bill squeaked through after hours of discussion, winning the last vote necessary only after leaders forced lawmakers who initially abstained to weigh in.

Earlier, with the bill’s fate unclear, Republican leaders in the Senate issued stern direction to members of their party. Some were called into a closed-door meeting with Senate President Susan Wagle.

A push to elbow the judiciary out of school spending by rewording the Kansas Constitution cleared a legislative committee Wednesday.

Yet the effort likely won’t get a full House vote this week and could be doomed on a roll call.

It’ll need two-thirds support in both the House and Senate, something that may prove even harder after Democrats and moderate Republicans swept up more seats in the 2016 elections.

The Kansas House has had its say on school finance — putting the ball in the Senate’s court.

Republicans in the Kansas House couldn’t win enough votes Monday to increase school funding by hundreds of millions of dollars. Conservatives in their own party thought it was too much money, Democrats said it was too little.

House Majority Leader Don Hineman said legislative leaders would keep working toward a compromise and could come back with a fresh proposal on Tuesday.

“Hopefully we have a different outcome tomorrow,” he said late Monday, but added that the bill as written is “all we can afford at this point in time.”

A report commissioned by the Kansas Legislature made clear just how much it might cost to improve student outcomes at public schools.

It’s so expensive, says a new lobbying group, that it threatens the quality of Kansas roads, health care and other government functions.

That fledgling outfit wants to amend the state constitution, freeing lawmakers to dodge steep hikes in school spending. External experts argue that added money would be needed to fulfill promises to graduate high school students better prepared for college or the workplace.

(This story has been updated.)

Getting most Kansas schoolchildren doing well enough in math and reading to stay on track for college could cost an extra $2 billion a year — or roughly half what the state already spends on aid to local schools.

The figure comes from a report released Friday that lawmakers commissioned to help them judge the costs of getting better classroom results and to comply with a Kansas Supreme Court order.

Kansas Secretary of State Kris Kobach is defending Kansas' strict voter registration laws in federal court in a trial that has now entered its second week.

(Daily developments below. Click here to jump to the most recent day's reporting. Or you can click here to read coverage of the contempt hearing that happened on Tuesday, March 20.)

How far must people go to prove they’re really Americans when they register to vote?

Does simply swearing to the fact — at risk of perjury, prison, fines and deportation — protect democracy from non-Americans subverting an election?

Or are cheaters common enough that only documents — say a birth certificate or a passport — go far enough to protect the integrity of the ballot box?

Even before releasing their results, consultants hired to guide Kansas lawmakers to a school funding plan that meets legal muster endured a grilling on Friday.

How, wondered lawmakers, would the consultants reach their conclusions on how much money school districts need to help students succeed academically? Why do the consultants seem to be excluding the overhead, non-classroom expenses of running schools from their study? And what about criticism of work they’d done in other states?

Kansas sits in a shrinking pool of states with the strictest marijuana and hemp laws, surrounded by a wave of decriminalization and legalization that’s swept most of the U.S.

So it’s no surprise that the topic of cannabis keeps cropping up in the Kansas Statehouse, where some lawmakers and lobbyists want the Free State to jump on the bandwagon.

Kansas lawmakers may once have thought stiffer penalties for marijuana made sense, but in recent years crowded prisons forced them to take another look.

One of the changes, made in 2016, reduced the crime of being caught with marijuana a second time from a felony to a misdemeanor.

But on Tuesday, the Kansas Sentencing Commission said that change overlooked state law that still keeps harsher penalties on the books for getting caught with pot residue than for possession of marijuana.

Last fall’s dramatic public backlash against plans for a massive poultry operation in northeast Kansas could lead to a change in law.

Two lawmakers whose districts include Tonganoxie — a small, rural commuter town between Lawrence and Kansas City — want to give local residents a say on whether they’ll be neighbors to a chicken plant.

Voters in the county of any proposed large-scale facility for caging or slaughtering poultry would be able to force a public vote on the matter by gathering enough signatures on a petition.

The chief school finance official in Kansas — under fire from top Republican lawmakers, backed by scores of people in state education circles — on Friday avoided a suspension.

Dale Dennis, the state’s deputy education commissioner and a walking encyclopedia of Kansas school finance policy, came under attack over an audit that showed some school districts had long been getting money for buses beyond what lawmakers authorized.

Over the decades, Republicans and Democrats both made it hard for the public to know what goes on in the Statehouse. But in the wake of a Kansas City Star series highlighting the lack of transparency, some members of both parties are pushing for change.

Recent days have seen a flurry of activity.

The U.S. Department of Education has thrown its weight behind a Kansas school plan that aims for much higher rates of math and reading proficiency by 2030.

 

Initial feedback from the federal agency on Kansas’ 90-page blueprint for closing achievement gaps had been lackluster, forcing the state to revise it.

Some states fear that a Kansas voter record system could fall prey to hackers, prompting a delay in the annual collection of nearly 100 million people’s records into a database scoured for double-registrations.

Kansas Secretary of State Kris Kobach touts the program, called Crosscheck, as a tool in combating voter fraud. Last year, 28 states submitted voters’ names, birth dates, and sometimes partial social security numbers, to Kobach’s office.

Fellow Republicans on Wednesday characterized Gov. Sam Brownback’s spending plan — more than $6.6 billion a year — as a beeline return to deficits and an abdication of responsibility in a budding crisis.

The governor, poised to leave for a spot in the Trump administration, unveiled a five-year, $600 million increase in school funding Tuesday evening. When lawmakers dug into that proposal Wednesday, they griped about key details.

Kansas set lofty goals for its public schools in the next dozen years – but the Trump administration and independent experts suggest the state’s plan is as vague as it is ambitious.

The state’s plan lacks concrete details on closing academic gaps in its public schools, so much so that federal officials and outside reviewers question the state’s compliance with civil rights law that demands all children get fair learning opportunities.

Following a ruling Wednesday that could complicate the case, the fight over whether Kansas Secretary of State Kris Kobach violated the constitution in his quest to demand proof of citizenship from voters will go to trial in March.

UPDATE: On Wednesday, Dec. 27, the Kansas Department of Revenue announced it would not be launching its new drivers license records system as planned on Jan. 2. To "ensure a successful rollout," the agency anticipated a short delay of days or weeks. 

Kansas auditors remain worried about the quality of a major state information technology project involving about 2 million drivers’ records — with little time left until the project’s go-live date.

The former legal director for the American Civil Liberties Union of Kansas thinks a practice among some school boards of restricting patron complaints at public meetings eventually will end up in court.

Doug Bonney, legal director emeritus for ACLU Kansas, said if barring complaints about school board members, the superintendent or employees is common, that doesn’t make it right.

In the summer of 2005, the Legislature butted heads with the Kansas Supreme Court over a ruling that ordered an influx of money to public education.

The result? Kansas came closer than ever to a constitutional crisis.

A federal lawsuit filed by the American Civil Liberties Union questions the security of a multistate voter registration database championed by Kansas Secretary of State Kris Kobach.

The ACLU this week added concerns about personal privacy and data security to its list of complaints against President Donald Trump’s voter fraud commission. The national organization also claims that the commission violated sunshine laws on public meetings and public documents.

Kansas lawmakers began groundwork Monday for their response to the Kansas Supreme Court’s order to fix school finance by this spring. The same day, a Hiawatha senator announced he will seek to curb the court’s powers through a constitutional amendment.

Children who come from low-income families, have disabilities, aren’t white or don’t speak English at home appear to be disproportionately paying the price of Kansas’ teacher shortage, according to an analysis by the Kansas News Service.

Particularly affected are Liberal, Garden City and Dodge City — southwest Kansas towns where most of the students come from low-income families and more than half face the added challenge of building math, literacy and other skills while acquiring English as a second language.

The top education official in Kansas on Tuesday proposed allowing more schools to hire educators who don’t qualify for teaching licenses under the state’s current system — and signaled he would support changes to state regulations if needed.

Saltwater injection. Fracking. Enhanced oil recovery.

News of protests in recent months against oil- and gas-related activity in the Flint Hills has drawn fresh attention to these and other terms — as well as some confusion.

Kansas’ approach to implementing a federal law on equity in education would fail to promote achievement for thousands of students the law was meant to protect, civil rights advocates say.

But state education officials counter that there are good reasons for their strategy designed to ensure that Kansas schools are evaluated fairly.

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