TOPEKA — Conservative Republicans want to allow Kansas parents to use state dollars to pay for private schooling for their academically struggling children, and they’re trying to make legislative approval of their plan a condition for funding public schools.
State senators and House members were in talks Wednesday on the final version of a measure that could tie funding for public education and initiatives designed to give parents of K-12 students who are at risk of failing more alternatives to public schools. Conservatives’ efforts are setting up a confrontation with Democratic Gov. Laura Kelly.
The GOP-controlled House has been more aggressive than the Republican-dominated Senate in pursuing “school choice” initiatives, last week approving a bill that would set up education savings accounts for at-risk students with tax dollars normally earmarked for public schools. Parents could use the money to cover a wide range of educational expenses to help their children, including tuition at private schools.
Conservatives are calling the proposal a “Student Empowerment Program,” but Democratic legislators and education groups have labeled the measure the “Frankenstein” education bill. Many Republicans don’t want to consider the $5.2 billion Kelly has proposed for education funding for the 2021-22 school year without some steps toward helping parents pull struggling students from public schools.
“They go hand in hand,” said Rep. Kristey Williams, an Augusta Republican and the chair of the House committee that drafted the chamber’s school choice proposals. “We’re concerned with the kids that are failing in our schools.”
Kelly’s proposed budget would increase the state’s spending on public schools by $263 million, or 5.3%, in line with education funding laws enacted in 2018 and 2019 to comply with Kansas Supreme Court rulings in a school finance lawsuit that remains before the justices.
The House’s education policy bill contemplated approving Kelly’s proposed $5.2 billion in state aid to the state’s 286 school districts, but in debating a another budget bill, House members trimmed the figure by $84 million. The Senate is considering proposals to substitute as much as $233 million in federal COVID-19 relief funds for state dollars in funding schools.
Lawmakers also have yet to renew a statewide property tax that would raise $770 million of the funds for schools. The Kansas Constitution allows the state to impose the tax only two years at time.
Both chambers have approved legislation to expand a program that gives a state income tax credit to donors to funds that provide private-school scholarships to at-risk students in public schools. The tax credits are capped at $10 million a year and have yet to be fully used.
It’s not clear how many state dollars would go into educational savings accounts under the House’s more expansive school choice proposal. Williams believe the parents of about 5,000 of the state’s 472,000 K-12 students would take advantage of it — making up to $23.5 million available to their parents for the next school year. But Democrats argue the bill would make the parents of tens of thousands of students eligible — siphoning off potentially hundreds of million of dollars from public schools.
State Rep. Valdenia Winn, of Kansas City, Kansas, the House Democrats’ lead negotiator on education issues, said GOP conservatives’ plan would “kill public education.”
“Everybody’s dancing around the cost — I mean, the serious impact on public education funding,” Winn said.
Kelly has stopped short of saying she would veto a bill containing the House proposal, but said last week that the measure would “cut millions in funding from public schools and harm our students.”
“Is it a way of using public funds to fund private education? Well, of course it is,” said Mark Tallman, a lobbyist for the Kansas Association of School Boards. “To me, it really doesn’t matter what you call it.”
GOP senators involved in the talks over education policy haven’t expressed reservations about the House’s proposal on education savings accounts but have asked for more details about how it would work.
Williams argued that “the status quo is not something we should ever be championing.”
“We’re talking about kids that are not succeeding in school, so the alternative is to let them not succeed in school,” she said.
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