TOPEKA — The Republican majority on the Kansas House K-12 budget committee bundled into one bill controversial diversion of state tax dollars to private schools with an expansion in state aid for special education in public schools and a mandate half of public school budget increases tied to an inflation index be devoted to raising teacher salaries.
GOP legislators who have fought for years in the Capitol for voucher-like reform sought to entice Republican and Democratic skeptics by including a one-year $72 million surge in spending on special education. Rep. Jason Goetz, R-Dodge City, said the cash was a just reward for educators providing “amazing service” to children, including one of his own. Democratic Gov. Laura Kelly had recommended five consecutive annual increases of $72 million to bring state special education expenditures into compliance with federal law.
Another sweetener via Abilene GOP Rep. Scott Hill: Provide an extra two years of supplemental budget support for rural 1A public school districts that would more deeply feel loss of students to private schools.
“Our smallest schools have a hard time adapting to changes in enrollment,” Hill said.
Rep. Brad Boyd, D-Olathe, said it wasn’t fair to hold harmless a certain cadre of districts when all could be hit by exodus of students to private schools.
“We just saw my Republican colleagues pick winners and losers,” Boyd said. “What we just saw in there is a continued, unrelenting attack on public schools. There is no other way to say it.”
Another piece of leverage inserted into the bill was the work of Wichita GOP Rep. Susan Estes. She said teachers weren’t paid enough and consumer price inflation was devastating, so it would be prudent to earmark half of new state aid tied to an inflation factor to be invested in K-12 teacher salaries.
Rep. Randy Garber, the Sabetha Republican, said he had qualms about potential of stepping on toes of locally elected school board members.
“While I agree our teachers need to be paid more,” Garber said, “are we not usurping the local board authority?”
Compromise or veto bait?
The bundled bill emerged as something of a dare for opponents of vouchers who would have to reject special education and teacher salary earmarks if they wanted to vote against enacting an entitlement for private school students stuffed into Senate Bill 83.
Under the bill, full implementation of the Sunflower Education Equity Act would require the state to begin making payments to private school students in July 2024. The cash would flow through special savings accounts monitored by the state treasurer at the direction of a new state board. Each eligible private school recipient would be able to draw $5,000 annually from the state. The bill was tweaked to enable families of four with annual income up to $180,000 to be eligible for the state subsidy for children enrolled in private schools.
Rep. Jarrod Ousley, D-Merriam, said the private school voucher initiative would be geographically restricted, at least at initial enactment of the law. Of the state’s 286 districts, only 57 had an accredited private school within its boundary. A mere 14 districts across Kansas possessed both an accredited primary and secondary private school.
The House K-12 Education Budget Committee approved the bill, despite vocal opposition by Democrats and without a clear estimate of how much it could cost the state treasury. The bill has yet to clear the full House and Senate, and could be vetoed by Kelly.
Rep. Valdenia Winn, a Democrat from Kansas City, said money for private schools was inserted into the bill despite hundreds of people expressing opposition. She condemned GOP committee leaders — the chairwoman is Augusta Rep. Kristey Williams — for allegedly failing to maintain decorum during public hearings and for purportedly neglecting to respect what it meant to be a public servant in the Legislature.
“Do public servants silence opposition? Do they amplify misinformation?” Winn said. “I’m constantly concerned about achievement, but I don’t attack the teachers. I don’t try to take funding from public schools. The whole process was disingenuous, which is a word that we use up here for not telling the truth, for telling lies.”
Lipstick on a pig
Williams and Rep. Brenda Landwehr, a Wichita Republican, worked with a handful of other GOP lawmakers to piece together the bill. Neither were fond of colleagues using the term voucher to describe the educational savings account for private school students.
Landwehr directed her ire at Kelly, who helped create a program directing $50 million in federal COVID-19 relief aid to assist low-income Kansas students with learning losses during the pandemic. The governor and top House and Senate legislative leaders on the State Finance Council approved the project. It delivered $1,000 per child for purchase of tutoring services, computers, software and other education materials.
Landwehr said the learning-loss program should be identified as a voucher if folks were going to call the savings account initiative a voucher.
“You either like vouchers or you don’t like vouchers,” Landwehr said. “If that (savings account) one is bad, then perhaps the governor needs to get rid of that (COVID-19) one as well.”
Rep. Mari-Lynn Poskin, D-Leawood, said she was dedicated to making certain Kansas public schools remained the hallmark of the state’s education system. She viewed K-12 public schools as the “great equalizer,” a ticket to prosperity and a protector of democracy.
She said draining public education of tax dollars for benefit of private schools was “fiscally irresponsible” because private schools could discriminate by rejecting students for any reason and could avoid student standardized testing required of public schools.
“This is the third attempt, this session alone, to put lipstick on the proverbial pig,” Poskin said.