Gov. Laura Kelly vetoed a proposal on Friday that would have banned transgender athletes from girls sports and another that would have required schools to let parents challenge classroom curriculum — a measure she has called a “teacher demoralization act.” The vetoes from the Democratic governor weren’t unexpected.
Kelly last year rejected legislation similar to the athlete ban and she had already criticized the curriculum measure, which Republicans called a “parent’s bill of rights.” The bills reflect the political trap GOP lawmakers are trying to set for Kelly, a first-term governor up for re-election in November.
The Legislature has sent her a variety of conservative priorities this year, daring her to either sign the bills – allowing Republicans to claim victory – or veto them and face attacks during the campaign.
Kelly issued the vetoes after earlier this week signing a Republican-led bill partially blocking Wyandotte County, the state’s most racially and ethnically diverse county, from offering additional protections to undocumented immigrants. Her approval of that bill produced a backlash from some Democrats and immigration activists.
In veto messages, the governor said the transgender athlete ban would harm Kansas’s ability to attract and retain businesses, sending a signal to companies that the state “is more focused on unnecessary and divisive legislation than strategic, pro-growth lawmaking.”
“We all want a fair and safe place for our kids to play and compete. However, this bill didn’t come from the experts at our schools, our athletes, or the Kansas State High School Activities Association.
It came from politicians trying to score political points,” Kelly said. Republican lawmakers have said transgender women have an unfair advantage over cisgender women in athletics.
The parent’s bill of rights was about “politics, not parents,” Kelly said. More than 100 parents testified against the legislation, she noted, saying that it would create more division in schools and suggested the measure would end up in court.
“Money that should be spent in the classroom would end up being spent in the courtroom,” she said.
“That’s unacceptable, especially after our efforts to bring Democrats and Republicans together to fully fund our schools for the last four years,” Kelly said. “I look forward to working with the Legislature in a bipartisan fashion on a bill that gives parents a seat at the table without harming school funding or exacerbating the issues facing our teachers.”
Republican lawmakers are expected to try to override both of the vetoes, but face potentially long odds. Still, they remain hopeful.
On the athletics bill, House Speaker Ron Ryckman, an Olathe Republican, and Senate President Ty Masterson, an Andover Republican, said earlier this year that transgender swimmer Lia Thomas’ victory at the NCAA championships underscored the importance of the issue in a way that could flip votes.
The bill prohibits individuals who are biologically male from participating in women or girls’ sports.
It does not bar individuals who are biologically female from participating in men or boys’ sports. “It’s about protecting the women who worked and trained all her life and should not have her hard work wiped out by being forced to compete on unlevel playing fields,” Masterson said in a statement.
The Senate achieved a veto-proof majority in its first vote on the issue last month but during a vote on the final version of the legislation, Sen. John Doll, a Garden City Republican, switched his “yes” vote to “no.”
The Senate ultimately fell two votes short of a veto-proof majority, though two Republicans were absent. The House fell 10 votes short of the 84 needed in that chamber to override.
Opponents of the bill have warned that the Legislature’s continued focus on the policy puts transgender children at risk as they watch from home. Republican supporters of the parents’ bill of rights may also struggle to summon enough votes for a veto override.
The Senate fell four votes short of a veto proof majority while the House will need 17 more votes to pass the policy. Both chambers were missing members during the vote but not enough to make up for the shortfall.
Every Democrat in the Legislature rejected the bill but they were joined by several Republicans including some that traditionally vote along party lines.
Nationally, Republican candidates have latched on to educational transparency as a campaign issue. Early in his campaign for governor, Kansas Republican Attorney General Derek Schmidt pledged to sign any bill banning critical race theory from classrooms.
“Democrats in Kansas are determined to find out the hard way what Democrats in Virginia learned last year: voters don’t elect candidates who tell parents they don’t matter,” Joanna Rodriguez, a spokeswoman for the Republican Governors Association, said, referring to the election of GOP Gov. Glenn Youngkin.
The bill codifies 12 “rights” for parents of public school students and requires school districts to develop processes by which parents can challenge materials taught in their child’s classrooms. Proponents argued this was needed to encourage and promote parent involvement and framed it as an answer to allegations that teachers in Kansas were using critical race theory in the classroom or providing access to books with pornagraphic content.
There is no evidence that critical race theory, a complex legal theory related to institutionalized racism, is present in Kansas schools.
“As an educator I don’t see this as an attack I see it as placing clearly out there that in Kansas in our schools in our communities these are rights as well as responsibilities for parents and these are rights as well as responsibilities for our schools,” Sen. Molly Baumgardner, a Louisburg Republican said during debate on the issue.
Underscoring the stakes of the legislation, Sen. Rick Kloos, a Topeka Republican, on Thursday called on the Shawnee Heights school district to pull the book “Gender Queer,” a memoir by Maia Kobabe, from its high school library. In a Facebook post, Kloos said the book’s contents are pornographic.
Under the parents’ bill of rights, any parent could challenge the material or educational benefit of any book available in a school library.
Kansas public schools and advocates for the schools have remained staunchly opposed to the policy, which they say needlessly targets teachers and administrators.
Parents, they say, already have the ability to engage with their child’s learning and discuss concerns with teachers and district officials. Jim Porter, chair of the Kansas State Board of Education, had urged Kelly to veto the measure.
“We were very concerned … and we asked her to consider vetoing that,” Porter said last week.