by Rachel Mipro, Kansas Reflector
March 14, 2023
TOPEKA — Public schools have become a monopoly, Republican lawmakers argued, in an attempt to gain support for a far-reaching voucher-like program that would fund unregulated private schools with state dollars.
During a Tuesday House hearing on the legislation, Augusta Republican Rep. Kristey Williams, the driving force behind Senate Bill 83, said the proposal would allow alternatives to public schools to thrive, such as entrepreneurial micro-schools.
“Our public schools are a monopoly,” Williams said. “It’s the only monopoly in our economy today, if you think about it. You can go anywhere you want and purchase any type of medical care, you can choose where you get your hair cut, you can choose to go to higher ed anywhere, but the K-12, you don’t.”
The bill has been revised several times since the beginning of the legislative session. In its current form, the voucher-like program is bundled with provisions that would increase special education funding in public schools and teacher salaries. The bill was narrowly advanced by the House after hours of debate, squeaking by 61-59. A final vote on the legislation is expected soon.
The bill would set aside $592.7 million from the State General Fund for special education in fiscal year 2024, as well as create a special education task force.
Critics of the bill said the special education and teacher provisions were added to sweeten the pot for skeptics. Rep. Mari-Lynn Poskin, a Leawood Democrat who has spoken against the bill repeatedly, urged her colleagues not to be swayed by the funding provisions.
“They lit it up like a Christmas tree, draping it in special ed tinsel and twinkling lights disguised as teacher pay raises,” Poskin said of the revised proposal. “Do not be distracted from the underlying bad bill. We have plenty of time to address critically needed special education and teacher pay in future sessions. If this is their version of perfect, I am concerned.”
What the bill would do
Implementing the Sunflower Education Equity Act would require the state to begin making payments to private school students in the 2023 to 2024 school year. The cash would flow through special savings accounts monitored by the state treasurer, with each eligible private school recipient able to draw $5,000 annually from the state.
In the first phase of the program, the focus would be on students attending or eligible to attend preschool and those who were enrolled and attending public school in grades K-12 during the previous school year.
Eligible students in this age range would include those who qualify for the national free or reduced lunch program or scored very low on state assessments for language arts or mathematics. The program would be opened for all K-12 students if fewer than 2,000 eligible students enrolled in the program during the first phase.
Eligible schools for the program would be any nonpublic preschool, elementary or high school approved by program regulators that teach reading, grammar, mathematics, social studies and science.
The fiscal impact of the program isn’t known, raising concerns from some that the program could have a huge effect on the state budget.
The bill was amended on the floor by Rep. Scott Hill, R-Abilene, to eliminate a proposed oversight board, leaving the treasurer in charge of the process. Hill compared the state of public education to the monopoly on cattle industry before the 1920s.
“They testified that any decrease to the monopoly would be absolutely disastrous to their business,” Hill said. “Perhaps it was, but it was good for our country. Today, we are talking about the opportunity to add other venues to public education.”
The bill stipulates that governmental agencies couldn’t control or supervise any of these schools or home schools. No immediate family member could charge or collect payment for tuition for students, but parents would be able to charge tuition and collect fees for schools they operated, including home schools, as long as their own child isn’t a student.
Parents could use the savings account money for tuition expenses, uniforms, textbooks or other items. The bill stipulates that the context or religious nature of a product or service wouldn’t be considered when determining payment, meaning state dollars could be used to purchase Bibles and religious objects.
Other bill versions and amendments
SB 83 was gutted of its original contents and replaced with the current educational proposal. A form of the legislation was originally heard and discussed as House Bill 2218 in the House K-12 Education Budget Committee. That version was heavily criticized by education officials.
“This is the third version of this bill this year alone of an underlying bill that is extremely unpopular because it creates a second unregulated and unaccountable private education system with an undetermined fiscal note that is taxpayer funded,” Poskin said during the House hearing.
Rep. Jarrod Ousley, a Merriam Democrat, pushed an amendment gutting the Sunflower Education Equity Act part of the bill, leaving only special education funding and the teacher funding portion of the bill. The amendment failed by a wide margin.
“We could’ve had it stand alone without holding special ed hostage,” Ousley said. “Without playing games with our special education funding.”
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