KS House advances largest school choice program in state history

KS House advances largest school choice program in state history

Rep. Valdenia Winn, D- Kansas City, (left) questions Rep. Kristey Williams, R -Augusta, during a Kansas House debate on educational savings accounts.

Rep. Valdenia Winn, D- Kansas City, (left) questions Rep. Kristey Williams, R -Augusta, during a Kansas House debate on educational savings accounts.

The Kansas City Star

The Kansas House narrowly advanced a bill Tuesday that would increase special education funding while also establishing the largest school choice program in state history.

The House voted 61 to 59 to advance the bill after more than three hours of debate.

A final vote will be held Wednesday before the bill moves to a conference committee with the state Senate. The narrow vote exposes divisions within the Republican Party on the bill and leaves the door open for opponents to defeat it the following day.

Rep. Kristey Williams, an Augusta Republican who chairs the House K-12 Budget Committee, attributed the sharp divide to a strong lobbying effort by public school advocates.

“The school lobby has such a hold on people here in our state and people are afraid to step out and try something different,” she said. “I actually believe that this is best for kids and schools shouldn’t fear any type of competition.”

The bill mandates districts offer roughly $2,000 raises to teachers, allocates $72 million in additional funding for special education and creates educational savings accounts for public and private school students across the state. The voucher-like program creates a fund for families to use taxpayer dollars for private and homeschooling expenses.

In its first year, the program would be available to all public school students testing at the lowest grade level or receiving free and reduced-price lunch. Up to 2,000 private school students would be eligible in the first year if their family made less than 300% of the poverty line. Private school eligibility would expand the longer the program is in place.

It’s unclear exactly what the program would cost, but an initial estimate predicted the state could spend nearly $152 million on a larger version of the savings accounts bill annually if the bill becomes law. It would be established in addition to Kansas’ existing tax credit program for private school scholarships.

Advocating for the bill on the House floor Tuesday, Williams framed the bill as having something for everyone.

A longtime advocate for school choice, Williams argued that educational savings accounts were an innovative tool meant to help students who were not adequately served in their public school.

She framed it as an answer to low test scores seen in Kansas, even as schools nationwide experienced a drop in scores following COVID-19.

“The only choice they have right now is if they can afford it,” Williams said of Kansas students.

The $72 million in special education funding, she said, was a compromise to provide part of the funding Democratic Gov. Laura Kelly had requested while the state continues to study its formula delivering dollars to the long underfunded program.

Kelly’s proposed budget included $72 million in additional funding this year, followed by additional $72 million increases each year for the next five years.

The combination essentially dares Kelly, who has long opposed voucher-like programs, to either accept the educational savings accounts or veto additional funding for special education which has been a key part of her second term platform.

Democrats and public school advocates argue the educational savings accounts will pull funding away from public schools to the detriment of all students.

Kansas schools just reached full funding in the wake of years of lawsuits over school funding. Advocates say that if public dollars are pulled for private schools the state could end up back in court.

“It’s gonna whittle down our education system,” said Samantha Neill, a teacher at Buhler High School. Neill was one of dozens of teachers to sign onto a letter urging a no vote.

In written testimony last month supporting the bill, parents said the savings accounts would enable them to more easily send their kids to schools they felt better fit their needs.

“We are your average middle class family – we make too much money to qualify for any financial assistance but we find ourselves budgeting every dollar to be sure we can continue to afford to give our sons’ the education they absolutely need,” wrote Julie Christensen, a Wichita parent who moved her son with dyslexia to a private school she felt better served him.

Voucher-like programs have had mixed results in states where they’ve been implemented. A review of research on the programs published by Chalkbeat found that in Ohio, Indiana and Washington, D.C. drops in student achievement were seen in the immediate aftermath of implementation. But in D.C. there was no clear impact on scores by year three and absentee rates among students who used vouchers decreased.

Critics have warned against sending state dollars to institutions that are not required to accept all students and do not face the same regulations as public schools.

“When I hear school choice I hear schools getting to choose who they’re going to accept,” Rep. Brad Boyd, an Olathe Democrat who serves on the Olathe School Board, said during a press conference Monday. “We’re targeting black and brown kids, and broke kids, who can’t afford to attend some of these prestigious private institutions when we take money away from public schools.”

Rep. Patrick Penn, a Wichita Republican, said at the same press conference hosted by the Legislature’s African American Caucus, that the legislation creates more options for families if a child is facing bullying or discrimination at a school.

Penn, the only Republican in the caucus, was the one member of the group to voice support for the policy.

“If we do school choice, not only do we increase the competition in the school space, we put the parents firmly in the driver’s seat,” he said.

Sara Jahnke, the mother of a Shawnee Mission first-grader with Down syndrome who profiled in The Star earlier this month, said this week she felt her child and others had been used as a “clear bargaining chip” to expand school choice.

“I want to support any measure to get more money to the teachers who are desperate for support in special education – but supporting the funding in this way requires me to also support taking resources from typically developing students,” she said in an email. “I won’t champion a weak attempt to modestly support my child as a tradeoff for taking resources away from anyone else’s child.”

This story was originally published March 14, 2023, 2:45 PM.

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KS House advances largest school choice program in state history

Katie Bernard covers the Kansas Legislature and state government for the Kansas City Star. She joined the Star as a breaking news reporter in May of 2019 before moving to the politics team in December 2020. Katie studied journalism and political science at the University of Kansas.