Broad education bill passes House, heads to Senate

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(Developing: Will be updated following Senate vote)

The Kansas House on Thursday passed a broad education bill linking public school funding with two proposals that provide public subsidies for private schooling.

The House voted 64-59 to pass the bill tying school funding to two proposals that are intended to give parents more choice about where their children can go to school although critics say it will be at the expense of public education.

“This bill is a thinly veiled disguise of what is actually a Frankenstein bill forcing through a wish list of anti public education policy and vouchers,” House Minority Leader Tom Sawyer said.

“The bill is not a sustainable plan and will ultimately defund K-12 education, forcing us back into the courts,” Sawyer said.

“This is the wrong message to send our children,” he said. “We should not be playing political games with their livelihoods.”

Republican state Rep. Kristey Williams, one of the lead architects of the plan, said the bill is not about encouraging private schooling.

“This bill is about funding kids,” Williams said. “It’s about making sure Kansas kids have an opportunity to learn. It’s not about funding private schools.

“We have a vested interested per our constitution for the educational interest of all of our students,” she said.

The bill now goes to the Senate, which is expected take it up later Thursday.

It’s not clear whether Democratic Gov. Laura Kelly would veto the bill although the House came up well short of the 84 votes needed to override any veto.

It’s now unclear how the Republican-controlled Legislature would proceed if the governor vetoes the package of proposals, including school funding.

The bill includes the governor’s plan to spend  $5.2 billion on public education for the  districts for the 2021-22 school year, which is in line with the state Supreme Court’s order to adequatelt fund schools.

The bill expands a program  that gives up to $10 million a year in state tax credits to entice businesses and individuals to donate money to a scholarship program for private schools.

The scholarships, limited to $8,000 a year for each student, are now available to students who are eligible for free lunches and enrolled in one of the state’s lowest 100 performing elementary schools for student achievement.

The legislation opens the door to more students by expanding the scholarship program to cover students who are eligible for free as well as reduced lunches and who are enrolled in any public school in Kansas.

The Department of Revenue could not estimate the number of scholarships that would be awarded with the new bill although it said state revenues would be reduced.

During the 2020-2021 school year, 632 students were awarded scholarships totaling approximately $2.0 million.

For tax year 2020, there were $3.5 million in contributions to scholarships, leading to $2.5 million in tax credits.

Since the program began in 2015, there have been $15.2 million in total scholarship contributions, with a total of $10.7 million in claimed tax credits.

The bill also creates education saving accounts, which allow at-risk student attending public schools to take their state base aid – about $4,500 a year – to a private school accredited by the state Board of Education or a national or regional accrediting agency.

Students eligible for the program, which would be administered by the state treasurer,  include those who have a high rate of absenteeism, are homeless, are not meeting requirements for graduation or are performing below grade level.

The bill allows the students to use the state funds to pay for textbooks and supplies required by private schools, costs for transporting students to school, educational “therapies” or services provided by a licensed or accredited education provider and tutoring, among othe expenses.

It was not known precisely how much the educational savings accounts would cost.

Williams estimated that between 5,000 and 12,000 of the state’s 472,000 students might benefit from the program.

At that rate, the program could potentially cost anywhere from about $23 million to about $55 million depending on the number of students who take part.