Kansas lawmakers narrowly advance school voucher bill

Published: Mar. 14, 2023 at 4:25 PM CDT
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WICHITA, Kan. (KWCH) - Update: The Kansas House on Wednesday forwarded a bill that ties the creation of a education savings account program with one-time increases in special education funding and teacher raises. The plan would allow public funds to be used for private or alternative education options. Senate Bill 83 narrowly passed the House in a final vote of 64-61. The bill needed 63 “yes” votes to advance to the Senate. Passage in the Senate moves the bill to Kansas Governor Laura Kelly’s desk.

In response to the bill moving on, Democrats in the Kansas House expressed disappointment and offered the following statement attributed to House Democratic Leader Valdenia Winn:

“I’m beyond disappointed in the short-sightedness of some of my colleagues today but recognize what a slim vote it was. We know for a fact that vouchers are detrimental to public education systems. How could they not be? Every voucher sucks money right out of classrooms and away from the public good.

I’ve said it once already, but it bears repeating: We are public servants. To that end, we should never in any way, shape, or form, undermine the very institutions that provide every Kansan with a fair opportunity for a more prosperous future. Public education is indeed the ‘great equalizer,’ as a colleague recently said. To strip our kids of that resource undermines their shot at the American dream. That is not what we are sent here to do.”

Kansas House Republicans issued a joint statement in response to the bill’s passage, explaining what they hope to accomplish with the legislation and what they say are benefits for Kansans.

“The goal of the Sunflower Education Equity Act is to enhance the educational opportunities of every Kansas child by lifting-up every school and every student.

First and foremost, our desire was to listen, respond and help support the needs of students and public schools in our state. Kansas Republicans continue to make education funding the top priority in the state budget and our commitment to a world-class education will always be paramount as we prioritize academic success, educational freedom, and local control.

The Act uses a measured approach of gradually phasing in low to middle income Kansas students to the program enabling new opportunities for specialized learning. For those who choose to participate in the program, families will receive an Education Savings Account (ESA) funded with a portion of the state’s per pupil BASE aid funding (about $5,000). These ESAs can be used to cover services such as tuition to a wide variety of schools, books and curriculum, and tutoring to best fit a student’s unique needs.

In addition to an ESA program, we believe that the state’s investment in public schools is critical to supporting the primary means of education for every Kansas child. Therefore, the bill also addresses widespread teacher shortages and retention challenges with teacher pay increases demonstrating our commitment to our teachers who have skillfully navigated the challenges of a global pandemic. It allows Kansas 1A and 2A schools additional flexibility and time to adjust to any attendance fluctuations while providing an enhancement of $72 million in special education funding while we wait for the federal government to fulfil the remainder of their funding promise.

The Sunflower Education Equity Act is a broad legislative compromise which includes critical policy requests from both political parties. This important middle ground truly embodies a good faith effort to listen to both sides and meet in the middle for the kids, teachers, and schools in our state. Kansas House Republicans are proud to stand behind this legislation that has the potential to help so many in our state.”

As schools across the state are out on Spring Break, Kansas lawmakers on Tuesday debated a plan that would allow public funds to be used for private or alternative education options. It’s a bill facing opposition from many public educators in the state who say it takes away from public schools without accountability for how it’s used.

Tuesday on the Kansas House floor in Topeka was a day of back and forth as lawmakers discussed a bill for an education savings account program (ESAS). The bill ties the creation of the ESAS with one-time increases in special education funding and teacher raises, items opponents say shouldn’t be tied together.

“It shouldn’t be tied to a bill that makes it seem if we vote down school scholarships, private scholarships, ESAs, there’s a lot of different phrases there, that we’re voting against special ed, and that’s really how it’s set up right now,” said public school teacher Samantha Neill.

Neill, a Buhler High School English teacher named 2018 Kansas Teacher of the Year, was among those listening in to Tuesday’s debate on the House floor.

“Speaking on behalf of the teachers I’ve worked with, there’s just been little input taken from us as to why this might be hurtful or harmful,” she said of the school voucher bill lawmakers discussed.

The long-time Kansas teacher is among 100 educators to sign a letter against Senate Bill 83, saying public dollars should stay with public schools.

“Public schools are held accountable in so many ways. We have accredited teachers, we have fiscal reporting, we have approved curriculums. To not have any of that and have public tax dollars going to that is definitely a concern,” Neill said.

The bill would create an education savings account program, run and overseen by the state treasurer’s office. Each account would hold about $5,000 and could be used for non-public schooling. The bill’s supporters say it allows families to find the best education option for their children.

“ESAs are like an educational toolbox. Once you open this box, you’ll find opportunities for innovation, inspiration and even healthy competition,” said Rep. Kristey Williams, R-Augusta.

Qualifying students are based on factors like those on free or reduced lunches, state test scores or family income, which starts at 300% of the federal poverty line to 600% when the program is fully implemented. This comes out to about $180,000 for a family of four.

“One-hundred-six districts out of 280-plus districts [had] 50% or more of the students at level one, our very lowest level. They are below grade level,” said Rep. Susan Estes, R-Wichita.

Lawmakers opposed to this bill question if the proposed legislation solves for meeting educational needs.

“We are setting up a secondary, private education system that we are prohibited from supervising, that has no performance measures,” said Rep. Mary Lynn Poskin, D-Leawood.

Neill said the school voucher bill is especially concerning for rural school districts where the loss in funding could have a significant impact on operations and no nearby public school options. Tuesday afternoon, the bill moved forward by a vote of 61 to 59.

It will have a final vote Wednesday in the Kansas House, where it will need 63 votes to pass.

The debate Wednesday included back and forth about what it would cost the state. The fiscal note for an early version of the bill estimated the cost at about $151 million a year for one percent of students in the state.