Kansas education commissioner says 'school choice' will cost taxpayers with no accountability
The Kansas House narrowly passed a "school choice" bill that will allow families of K-12 students to access upwards of $5,000 in state funding for alternatives to public education — including private schools and homeschooling. The Kansas State Board of Education opposes the bill, saying there's no way to track how students are doing.
A proposal that will allow for an education savings account for K-12 students passed in the Kansas House on Wednesday, despite opposition from the State Board of Education.
The school choice bill, which was tied to special education funding and teacher pay raises, passed by a narrow margin of 64-61.
"The state board is opposed to the bill that was passed," says Randy Watson, Kansas' commissioner of education.
State Rep. Kristey Williams (R-Augusta), an advocate of the voucher-like program in the bill, said in a Feb. 2023 interview on Up To Date that Kansas public schools "are not able to meet the the needs of many of our students," citing poor proficiency levels in reading.
Across the country, academic achievement levels declined in the wake of the COVID-19 pandemic.
"There certainly has been a tremendous response by the State Board in noticing that," Watson says.
Watson says the State Board of Education acted immediately to allocate $15 million towards science and reading, and provide training programs to help teachers improve literacy instruction.
"Let me be clear about this: Kansas schools are not failing," Watson says.
In the February interview with Williams, the Wichita-area Republican argued that the flexible-education spending account would let families "break away from the status quo" and put the money toward a private school, homeschool or microschool.
But Watson says the educations savings accounts, which comes with an early estimated cost of $152 million to the state, lack accountability.
"If you have a student that, let's say, was not doing well in the public schools," Watson says, "and they execute what was passed yesterday in the House and they go to a homeschool situation, there will be no data to follow that students see if that improved or not, even though tax money was spent on it."
Watson says he regularly tours the 286 school districts in Kansas, and school choice isn't a topic of discussion.
"What parents are concerned about is a good quality teacher," Watson says. "They're concerned about their schools remaining open in Kansas, and they're concerned about appropriate funding. Those are the things that come to me, and I'm out in Kansas communities every week."
- Randy Watson, commissioner, Kansas Department of Education