While the broader battle over a tax plan in the Kansas Legislature continues, a few nights ago the Senate managed to slip in a last minute provision that makes it a lot easier to obtain tax credits for private and religious school scholarships in the state.
The mission of the legislation is laudable: provide scholarships to at-risk kids to go to private or parochial schools.
But there's a catch. People or corporations in the state receive a tax credit for providing the scholarship money. The state will allow up to $10 million a year in such credits.
Mark Tallman, the top lobbyist with the Kansas Association of School Boards, says this is using public money to — in a roundabout way — pay for private school.
Worse, he says, there’s no way to know if the money is being well spent because private and religious schools don’t have the reporting requirements of public schools.
“It’s creating an opportunity to, in effect, go get funds that are created by public action without the kind of accountability that we require for every other public dollar in our education system,” says Tallman.
But the head of the Kansas Catholic Conference disagrees.
“I know that’s a talking point that people who oppose school choice often use but in this case it’s just completely wrong. All the money that goes to the schools is private money,” says Executive Director Mike Schuttloffle.
The Catholic Church was a driving force behind the legislation when it passed last year. The original bill said a student had to be both at-risk and attending a failing school.
That failing school part was dropped this session
So, says Tallman, not only does the state lose up to $10 million a year at a time Kansas needs every dime, but it can’t track where all those funds go.
“It appears that someone could decide to homeschool their child, receive up to $8,000 in scholarship money and provide no educational services whatsoever.”
The fact is that Catholic schools in Kansas are accredited and, says Schuttloffel, test scores are reported to the state.
That’s not true for all private schools.
But, he says, why would anyone want to deny a struggling kid an education that could be better?
“Our Catholic schools really do a wonderful job with low income kids. They perform very high with low income kids. We just want to give parents more options for choosing the best education for their kid,” he says.
But what happens if we turn off the educational filter and push this story through the politics of the 2015 Kansas Legislative session? Why expand the program now?
Emporia State University political science professor Michael Smith says it's because many Republicans in the Legislature are driven not by tax policy but by social causes.
“At their core, their top priority is the socially conservative agenda,” he says.
It’s not just the fact that the voucher program exists that upsets many public school advocates. It’s how it got into the tax plan in the first place. It was stuck in during negotiations between the House and Senate with no hearing in a house committee or a vote on the house floor.
Smith says if conservative lawmakers are forced to raise taxes they can at least go back to their constituents and say they managed to push through legislation expanding access to private and religious schools.
“Well, being able to hit hard the private school voucher issue would help mollify that conservative base,” Smith says.
Of course, at this point nobody knows what’s going to be in the final tax bill that passes the Legislature.
Some observers say dropping the expansion of this voucher program might be the thing that helps lure moderates into tax deal.