Kansas lawmakers consider ways to funnel public dollars into private schools

By: - January 27, 2021 9:43 am

Stuart Little, a lobbyist for Shawnee Mission schools, says proposed changes to a tax credit program would improve revenue for private schools and the entities that generate their scholarships. (Sherman Smith/Kansas Reflector)

TOPEKA — Stuart J. Little bristled Tuesday as he listened to testimony in support of a dramatic expansion of a private school tax credit originally designed to serve the state’s most vulnerable children.

The program reimburses organizations that grant scholarships for faith-based private schools for up to $8,000 per student per year. Currently, about 600 students from low-income families in the worst-performing schools take advantage of the program. Proposed changes would open eligibility to 44% of students enrolled in public schools.

Little, a lobbyist representing Shawnee Mission schools, scoffed at the explanations offered by organizations and schools who support the changes on behalf of students who have been excluded from taxpayer-funded tuition assistance.

“Of course they want to double, triple their business. So that’s a new incentive,” Little said. “I’m just thinking back to when we began this: We’re serving struggling kids in poor performing schools. And now we’re serving kids anywhere that meet some minimal threshold and may not be struggling. Ultimately, you get corporate types in here wanting to pursue this because it is a revenue stream for them.”

Committees in both the Senate and House heard testimony Tuesday on the proposed changes to the Tax Credit for Low Income Students Scholarship Program. The model legislation from the American Legislative Exchange Council is among an assortment of bills that provide paths for sweeping public dollars into private schools.

The House K-12 Education Budget Committee on Wednesday will hear testimony on legislation to require public schools to use state funding to close achievement gaps and meet other academic goals. The bill doesn’t specify a punishment for schools that fail to show annual improvement in student performance, but education advocates fear it will serve as an excuse to redirect funding from public to private schools.

Another ALEC bill would allow parents to move their student’s allotment of public education funding into a savings account. The Student Empowerment Act ostensibly would help at-risk students, but any student subjected to remote learning would be eligible to use public dollars on private school tuition.

“Every single human being in here is mad about COVID and what happened to the schools, and that has to change,” Little said in an interview after the Senate Education Committee hearing on the tax credit bill. “Everybody has an opinion about their school and has concerns about their school, and this is a conversation about how we can take it out, and it’s ignoring the work that’s being done in school districts to manage a public health crisis that some people here in the building are not even adhering to.”

The tax credit program has been in place since 2015 and costs the state about $2.5 million annually that would otherwise go into the general fund. The program is limited to families that qualify for free lunches, which means they can earn up to 130% of the federal poverty level, and the student must be enrolled in one of the 100 worst-performing elementary schools in the state. The proposed expansion would cover students from any school in the state who receive free or reduced lunches, which moves the income threshold to 185% of the federal poverty level.

More than 200,000 students would become eligible under the changes, although the program is capped at $10 million in annual tax credits. Public school advocates say the change will allow schools to pick and choose students from a much larger pool, rather than just help the most needy. They also say the investment could be better spent on early childhood education or special education programs.

Other concerns include the potential for Catholic schools to exclude LGBT students from enrollment.

Bob Corkins, a lobbyist for Frontier Peace Advisors, testifies Tuesday before the House K-12 Education Budget Committee in support of expanding the use of public funds for private schools. (Sherman Smith/Kansas Reflector)

Bob Corkins, a lobbyist for Frontier Peace Advisors, a private libertarian association, told lawmakers the cost of expanding the use of tax credits for private schools is just “a drop in the bucket” compared to the billions spent on public education each year.

“Nowhere in the Constitution does it say anything that education has to be in government buildings financed with government bonds, taught by government employees entitled government pensions, using government curriculum,” Corkins said. “That is not our constitutional imperative. It’s only by historical tradition that in the case of K-12 our government exerts virtual monopoly control over the means of production.”

Libby Knox, of the Catholic Education Foundation in Kansas City, Kansas, said the current program is unfair to low-income students who happen to live in districts with schools that perform better than the lowest 100. The foundation provides 1,500 privately funded scholarships through the Archdiocese of Kansas City in Kansas, including 300 students in the tax credit program.

“Low-income families move frequently but cannot predict which zip codes or school boundaries will qualify them for access to a better educational fit for their children,” Knox said. “How is that fair and equitable?”

Lynee Habiger, principal at Sacred Heart Cathedral Catholic School in Dodge City, said many students who enrolled through the tax credit program initially needed help with English language skills. Now, she said, they feel “at home” in her school.

“Our children who enrolled because of the tax credit scholarships have truly flourished,” Habiger said. “We believe that it is because both their faith and education have finally intersected.”

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Sherman Smith
Sherman Smith

Sherman Smith is the Kansas Press Association’s journalist of the year. He has written award-winning news stories about the instability of the Kansas foster care system, misconduct by government officials, sexual abuse, technology, education, and the Legislature. He previously spent 16 years at the Topeka Capital-Journal. A lifelong Kansan, he graduated from Emporia State University in 2004 as a Shepherd Scholar with a degree in English.