This year’s voucher bills are only the latest efforts to privatize education in Kansas

February 11, 2021 3:33 am

A primary responsibility of any state is education, and most states allocate about half their budgets to the core service of public education. Advocates of smaller state budgets look to privatize public education, writes Mary Sinclair. (Getty Images)

The Kansas Reflector welcomes opinion pieces from writers who share our goal of widening the conversation about how public policies affect the day-to-day lives of people throughout our state. Dr. Mary Sinclair is an elected school board member and longtime public education advocate serving on statewide parent organizations and appointed committees.

The school voucher battle has become an annual ritual in the Kansas Legislature.

Expansion of the Tax Credit Scholarship Act is on its sixth round since this voucher workaround program was first passed on a midnight vote in 2014. Each successive year, legislators have tried to increase the spending cap, to relax the eligibility requirements, or both (2016, 2017, 2019, 2020, 2021). Anger and frustration over current events, such as the pandemic or bullying, are leveraged to gain support for vouchers.

The primary argument for these bills, however, is that they will improve educational outcomes for at-risk youth.

The history of taking public dollars and putting them into private schools has much older roots, dating back to an economist in the 1950s and a pair of brothers from Wichita. Charles and David Koch began experimenting with tax policy by way of education policy. A primary responsibility of any state is education, and most states allocate about half their budgets to the core service of public education. Thus, a straight path to realizing a smaller state budget is to privatize public education.

Yet if the rationale for Kansas vouchers is to improve educational outcomes for at-risk youth, then wouldn’t we expect these bills to serve students who are actually at-risk? Wouldn’t we expect the Legislature to ensure that private schools and home school parents who receive public dollars are held accountable for students’ progress and use of funds?

We should, and one problem with these bills is that they have no meaningful oversight or way to ensure accountability.

Private, non-public schools are not required to report on students who receive public dollars, how they are performing, or how the public dollars were used. Since 2014, more than 2,100 Kansas students have participated in the scholarship program, but the annual reports fail to include any data on educational outcomes.

For all we know, these students could be doing worse in private schools. Multiple studies on voucher programs have shown a lack of improvement in educational achievement (in places such as Washington, D.C., Indiana, Louisiana, Ohio and Wisconsin). Nationally there are numerous reports of financial improprieties and misuse of funds in schools that lack public reporting, particularly those that operate with for-profit entities.

The comprehensive Kansas Education Systems Accreditation (KESA) standards are also optional under these bills, allowing scholarship students to attend schools where the only measurement for accreditation is whether teachers hold a license. All accreditation requirements are waived for the savings account participants. Under this bill, a “qualified private school” is defined as any private school that has registered the school name and address with the state board of education.

Earlier this week, Kansas Reflector opinion contributor Liz Meitl encouraged public education supporters in Kansas to rally against these bills, in part due to inequitable access for all youth. Private schools may, but are not required to, meet the learning and behavioral needs of all who apply. They can require parents to waive their rights to individualized special education services. And they can push students out for failing to meet private school expectations — a director with the Catholic Diocese confirmed that during a hearing of the Kansas K-12 Budget Committee last month, saying their private schools essentially blame students for failing and actively counsel them out: “If they don’t start passing some classes, they are not going to graduate from our schools. … So we have to transition kids to a different school, just because they are not going to meet the educational requirements. But that is their own choice, because of how they worked in the schools.”

Other authorized uses of public funds in these bills include private school student fees, bus fees, tutoring, educational therapies, fees for college entrance tests and dual college credit tuition.

Imagine scaling up this expense to make it accessible and equitable to all students enrolled in public schools. The voucher savings account bill in total is estimated to pull hundreds of millions of dollars out of K-12 public education. If just 10% of the state’s 476,000 public school students participate, more than $280 million would be transferred from the State General Fund to the students’ accounts under this scenario in fiscal year 2022.

The more compelling course of action is to strengthen and expand our schools that welcome all Kansas young people. Let’s expand access to quality early learning and pre-K programs. Let’s remain committed to restoring constitutionally adequate funding to the school finance formula — the Kansas Legislature is still two and half years away from fully phasing in adequate funding under the Gannon Kansas Supreme Court agreement.

Kansans deserve full academic and financial accountability with the use of public dollars and our students deserve schools that serve all children.

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Mary Sinclair
Mary Sinclair

Dr. Mary Sinclair is a retired educational researcher from the University of Minnesota's Institute on Community Integration. She is an elected school board member and longtime public education advocate serving on statewide parent organizations and appointed committees. She is a graduate of the Kansas public schools and has graduate degrees in education from Harvard University and the University of Minnesota.