photo by: John Hanna/AP Photo
TOPEKA — Conservative Republican lawmakers on Wednesday tied funding for Kansas’ public schools to a proposal that would allow parents of academically struggling students to use state dollars to pay for private schooling.
Republican negotiators for the state House and Senate drafted the final version of legislation that would set up education savings accounts for students who are at risk of failing in public schools, using tax dollars normally earmarked for those schools. Parents could use the state funds to cover a wide range of educational expenses to help their children, including tuition at private schools.
The measure is part of an education bill that also includes Democratic Gov. Laura Kelly’s proposal to provide $5.2 billion in state aid to public school districts for the 2021-22 school year, a 5.3% increase in line with laws enacted in 2018 and 2019 to boost education funding. The laws complied with Kansas Supreme Court rulings in a school finance lawsuit that remains before the justices.
“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.”
Final votes on the legislation were expected this week in both the Republican-controlled House and the GOP-dominated Senate. Conservatives’ push for what they’re calling a “Student Empowerment Program” and their strategy of linking it to funding for public schools sets up a confrontation with Kelly.
Such a measure also could lead to another legal challenge before the state’s highest court after seven rulings from 2013 to 2019 forced Republican lawmakers to spend more on schools than they otherwise would have. John Robb, one of the attorneys for four school districts that sued the state in 2010, said they’re watching what becomes law before deciding whether to ask the state Supreme Court to intervene again.
The Democratic governor has stopped short of saying she would veto such a measure, but she said last week when the House passed its version of the legislation that the measure would “cut millions in funding from public schools and harm our students.”
Democrats and education groups labeled the House’s version of the bill the “Frankenstein” education bill. State Rep. Valdenia Winn, of Kansas City, Kan., the House Democrats’ lead negotiator on education issues, said the plan for education savings accounts would “kill public education.”
“Everybody’s dancing around the cost — I mean, the serious impact on public education funding,” Winn said.
Under the negotiators’ plan, the state would launch the new education savings program in 2022, with the state treasurer overseeing it. Students would qualify for an account if they were not working at grade level or had a “high rate” of absences, but also if they were homeless or had dyslexia.
It’s not clear how much the state would put in total into education savings accounts. Williams believes about 5,000 of the 472,000 students in the state’s public K-12 schools would get accounts — making up to $23.5 million available, based on the proposed aid levels for 2021-22. But Democrats argue the bill would make the parents of tens of thousands of students eligible — siphoning off potentially hundreds of millions of dollars from public schools.
“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.”
The final version of the legislation also would expand a program giving 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.
Both chambers approved expanding the tax-credit program. The Senate never debated the proposal for education savings accounts, but its Republican negotiators were receptive.
Sen. Molly Baumgardner, of Louisburg, one of GOP senators’ lead negotiators, said the proposal was a “call to action” for public schools to do better with providing services to at-risk students.
“What you’re starting to see is that bubble-up of frustration,” she said.
Even if the education bill became law, the debate over school funding might not be resolved. Legislators working separately on the entire state budget have considered lesser state aid figures.
Lawmakers also have yet to renew a statewide property tax to provide $770 million for schools in 2021-22. The Kansas Constitution limits the state to imposing the tax for two years at a time.