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Kansas lawmakers say no to governor's special ed request, yes to more money for private schools

Republican Rep. Kristey Williams, right, talks with Rep. Brenda Landwehr.
Daniel Caudill
Kansas Rep. Kristey Williams, right, and Rep. Brenda Landwehr are among the conservative Republicans pushing for ways to make it easier for families to send their children to private school.

A bill advanced by the Kansas House expands the state’s tax credit scholarship program — something supporters see as a school choice and detractors frame as diverting money away from public schools.

Kansas lawmakers sent the governor a contentious school spending bill on Friday that lets more families use state tax dollars to pay for private schools.

The bill spends more than $6.3 billion on K-12 public schools. It includes $7.5 million in additional funding for special education — about one-tenth of what Democratic Gov. Laura Kelly proposed in her budget.

The bill expands the state’s tax credit scholarship program — something supporters see as a school choice and detractors frame as a diversion of money from public schools. It raises income eligibility for the scholarship to 250% of the federal poverty level — about $75,000 a year for a family of four. It also increases the tax credit for contributions from 70% to 75%.

As lawmakers wrapped up their veto session, the Kansas House approved the school spending bill 83-37. The Senate approved it 23-16, sending the bill on to Democratic Gov. Laura Kelly.

Kelly has repeatedly said she believes state education dollars ought to go to public schools. To override a veto, 84 votes are needed in the House and 27 in the Senate.

Kansas’ tax credit scholarship program began in 2014. Early restrictions made it available only to low-income elementary school children attending the 100 lowest-performing schools in the state. Since then, lawmakers have expanded it to all students eligible for free or reduced-price lunch.

Conservatives say they want to give more families an alternative to public schools, which they say are failing some kids. They pushed against arguments that the programs undermine public schools.

“If they’re in a school where they can’t learn, those little kids will be able to go to a school … and be educated and get some real results,” said Republican Rep. Patrick Penn of Wichita. “It’s about making sure that the kids have what they need.”

Opponents — including school superintendents, teachers’ unions, the Kansas Board of Education and the Kansas Association of School Boards — say the school choice measures are an attempt to defund public schools. They also say there’s no evidence that voucher programs work or that students do better academically in private schools.

“I do not believe diverting tax liability dollars from our state general fund to private, now including non-accredited, private schools should be our state’s No. 1 priority,” said Democratic Rep. Mari-Lynn Poskin.

During an education conference committee Friday morning, lawmakers removed a portion of the bill that would have required school districts to create a “parent portal” on their websites to list curricula, textbooks, required reading books and more.

The bill also allows private school or home-school students to participate in sports and other activities at public schools. And it would give the Kansas Legislature the right of first refusal to acquire any property sold by a school district.

Democratic Sen. Tom Holland raised questions about that late addition to the bill.

“Why is the state getting into buying school buildings? Why is the state in essence getting into the commercial property market?” Holland said. “I see a ton of problems with this.”

It also would allow local school districts to pay school board members. Any salaries or stipends would come out of the district’s budget.

Kansas law requires the state to provide at least 92% of the excess costs of special education, but the state has not met that threshold since 2011. School superintendents, teachers’ unions and the Kansas Association of School Boards have lobbied lawmakers to meet the statutory requirement.

Suzanne Perez reports on education for KMUW in Wichita and the Kansas News Service. You can follow her on Twitter @SuzPerezICT.

The Kansas News Service is a collaboration of KCUR, Kansas Public Radio, KMUW and High Plains Public Radio focused on health, the social determinants of health and their connection to public policy.

Kansas News Service stories and photos may be republished by news media at no cost with proper attribution and a link to ksnewsservice.org.

Suzanne Perez is a longtime journalist covering education and general news for KMUW and the Kansas News Service. Suzanne reviews new books for KMUW and is the co-host with Beth Golay of the Books & Whatnot podcast. Follow her on Twitter @SuzPerezICT.
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