Push for ‘school choice’ measure falters in Senate

Published: Apr. 9, 2021 at 10:47 PM CDT
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TOPEKA, Kan. (AP) - TOPEKA, Kan. (AP) — A split among Republicans on Friday blocked a proposal from conservative Kansas lawmakers to allow parents of academically struggling students to pay for private schooling with state dollars normally earmarked for public schools.

A bill that ties public school funding to the proposal failed on a 20-20 vote in the GOP-controlled Senate. The chamber had voted 19-19 against the measure Thursday night, with two Republicans absent.

The bill would set up education savings accounts for students who are at risk of failing in public schools. Parents could use the funds for a wide range of educational expenses to help their children, including private school tuition.

The measure included Democratic Gov. Laura Kelly’s proposal for $5.2 billion in state aid for public schools for 2021-22. Democrats said the measure potentially siphons off several hundred million dollars for the new savings accounts, and even some Republicans were wary, particularly because senators had not previously had not debated such an aggressive “school choice” initiative.

“It’s taking public funds and sending them to private and parochial schools,” said Sen. Brenda Dietrich, a moderate Topeka Republican and a former public school superintendent. “I think our job is to shore up public education.”

Nine Republicans joined the Senate’s 11 Democrats in voting against the measure. The House approved it Thursday in a 64-59 vote that saw 20 of the chamber’s 86 Republicans join all 39 Democrats in voting no.

Conservative Republicans argued their proposed “Student Empowerment Program” would give parents more ways to help their children and that promoting “school choice” pushes public schools to improve.

“We need to make sure that at-risk kids don’t stay where they are, which is not succeeding like they should be succeeding,” said Rep. Kristey Williams, an Augusta Republican and the chair of a House committee on education spending.

GOP conservatives now must draft a new proposal and work to win over at least one dissident Republican in the Senate if they’re to get a bill passed this year.

Williams promised another attempt after the Legislature returns May 3 from its annual spring break. She also told reporters that she wants to keep linking funding for public schools to major policy changes in a single package.

“We’ve gotten accustomed to funding K-12 — 52% of our budget — without requiring a return on our investment,” she said.

Senate Education Committee Chair Molly Baumgardner, a Louisburg Republican, said the focus may turn to other school policy issues. She said the proposal for the education savings accounts needs a “real vetting process” in the Senate.

“It may be quite frankly that the ask is the House needs to address that again next year,” she said.

Kelly also has hinted that she might veto a bill with such a proposal even if it contains her proposed funding for public schools. She said last week that the savings-account proposal would “cut millions in funding from public schools and harm our students.”

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