TOPEKA — In a lengthy debate Thursday in the Kansas Senate, Republican legislators batted away several suggested amendments and intraparty dissenters in passing a bill expanding a private school tax credit program beyond the originally intended at-risk students.
The bill expands eligibility for the program, which reimburses organizations providing scholarships for private schools up to 70% of a maximum $500,000 donation in the form of tax credits. Currently, students who are eligible for free lunch and attended one of the hundred lowest-performing elementary schools in Kansas are eligible for the program.
Under the proposed changes, students qualify if they come from any public school in Kansas or are on free or reduced lunch programs, and don’t have to be defined as “at-risk.” This would open eligibility for the program currently serving about 600 students to a pool of 200,000.
Senate Republicans touted the bill as an opportunity to provide opportunities to all children in need, not just those who happen to attend a poor-performing school. Opposing Democrats echoed opposition testimony in committee hearings calling it a thinly-veiled voucher program sapping public funds for private institutions.
“We are going to give an opportunity for those kids in middle school and high school who have not had an opportunity, a choice,” said Sen. Molly Baumgardner, R-Louisburg, and chairwoman of the Senate Education Committee.
The measure passed the Senate 23-14, with three passing or absent and several Republicans breaking from party lines. A bill with the same language and intention was passed out of the House K-12 Budget Committee and awaits action on the House floor.
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 bill would not raise the $10 million annual cap on tax credits.
Public school advocates said the change will allow schools to “cherry-pick” students from a much larger pool, rather than just those in need. They said it would provide schools the choice, not parents and children. They also say investing in early childhood education or special education programs still needing funding would yield higher returns.
Senate Minority Leader Dinah Sykes, D-Lenexa, called the scholarship program a tax loophole that serves as a way to launder money to pay back wealthy donators. While it may not be a voucher program in name, the result would be the same, she said.
“We’ll be here next year, the year after and the year after that attempting to amend this program and expand its scope until it’s a full-blown voucher program and we have destroyed our public schools,” Sykes said. “Now, what’s going to be next? A public pool and a public park is nice enough, and we’re going to offer tax credits to join the country club?”
Other concerns include the potential for Catholic schools to exclude LGBTQ students from enrollment. These concerns led to a series of regulatory amendments changing the proposed qualifications for a participating school.
Sen. Cindy Holscher, D-Overland Park, offered an amendment asking for an anti-discrimination statement to be posted in school literature, recruitment packets and other school documents. She said this mirrors the language required of public institutions across the state.
“If this is the policy and the procedure, it should not be an issue to have this language inserted into the bill,” Holscher said. “If our private institutions want to be a part of this program and enjoy some of the same benefits that our public schools do, then it’s important that we have consistency between institutions.”
The amendment was ruled not relevant to the subject matter by the Senate Rule Committee, which raised eyebrows among some Democratic legislators. Sen. David Haley, D-Kansas City, said GOP Senators were setting a dangerous precedent by using the bully pulpit of the supermajority to reject relevant amendments.
“Because there is a supermajority we’ll simply choose not to have a discussion or debate because the issues may make some uncomfortable,” Haley said. “This measure is germane to the topic of school finance, and whether or not those funds can be used to discriminate is something that our state law should codify.”
Senate President Ty Masterson said in this case the amendment simply did not hit on sufficient “points” to be considered relevant.
“Now, this is one of those times, I will contend, where it didn’t hit all nine points, but that’s not rare,” Masterson said. “That was a fair discussion on the rule.”
Sen. Pat Pettey, D-Kansas City, proposed two amendments to the tax credit effort. The first one required that involved schools be accredited by the state board of education and the second would have walked the program back to the 100 lowest-performing elementary schools.
Baumgardner countered this would only allow urban, not rural, school children to be eligible. Both amendments failed by voice vote.
Sen. Brenda Dietrich, R-Topeka, who spent 40 years as a former public-school teacher and superintendent, touted the importance of public education in the state. She credited much of her personal success to the public school system and said it was essential to driving the economy of the state.
“I think good public schools are good business,” said Dietrich, one of four Republicans to oppose the bill. “Public schools accept every child. The severely, multiple-handicapped child. The children that have never gone to a preschool program and can’t even begin to recognize their letters and colors. … I choose to put the resources that we have in our public sector.”
Sen. John Doll, R-Garden City, Sen Jeff Longbine, R-Emporia, and Sen. Carolyn McGinn, R-Sedgwick also opposed the bill.
If the House version of the bill passes, it would go to Gov. Laura Kelly’s desk for approval. With four Republicans in opposition to the bill, it is unlikely the Senate could sustain a veto by the governor.