TOPEKA — Behemoth legislation that reshapes the financing of public schools awaits consideration in the House after the K-12 Budget Committee bundled numerous controversial proposals together and approved the package.
The bill began as the Student Empowerment Act, which would place base state aid normally given to public schools into education savings accounts for students to use toward private school tuition. On Thursday, members of the K-12 Budget Committee initiated a series of amendments to limit the scope of who qualifies for the private school vouchers and attach other legislation.
The committee piled on nine amendments or bills to create the education package. While the bill passed favorably from the committee, some lawmakers expressed concern the substitute measure would violate state or federal regulations.
House Minority Leader Tom Sawyer, D-Wichita, called the “Frankenstein bill” a worrying attack on public education in Kansas in the middle of a five-year plan to restore adequate funding to the system.
“Unfortunately, it looks like a major assault on funding for our children’s education. Just the voucher piece alone could cost $200 or $300 million a year by transferring public funds to private schools,” Sawyer said. “I think it’s a very dangerous bill.”
Lawmakers removed a qualifier for the voucher program that students subjected to remote or hybrid learning for a certain number of term hours would count as “at-risk.” Public education advocates had criticized the bill in part because of the wide-open eligibility that they said would provide private schools with space to pick and choose students, leaving public schools with children struggling the most.
“As we heard some of the testimony coming in from a number of the conferees, we got together, and we decided that this might be a good time to strike that language out,” said Rep. Patrick Penn, R-Wichita.
Among the components added to the bill is a “school choice” plan that would reimburse organizations that grant scholarships for private schools for up to $8,000 in tax credits per student per year. About 600 students from low-income families in the 100 worst-performing schools are currently eligible, but the proposed legislation would open eligibility up to more than 40% of students enrolled in public schools, with a cap of $10 million that would otherwise flow into the state general fund.
Opponents again argued this would twist the private school tax credit system to allow schools to pick and choose. They said private schools are not held to the same accreditation standards and can discriminate against students in certain cases.
An amendment from Rep. Kyle Hoffman, R-Coldwater, also packaged the governor’s recommended budget for education into the bill. The only exception is the removal of an extension for the sunset date of high-density at-risk student weighting.
Rep. Sean Tarwater, R-Stilwell, proposed an amendment replacing funding left out of the governor’s budget, including $3.9 million to expand the mental health intervention team pilot program and at least $5 million to fund the school safety and security grants. Language in the bill would direct the Kansas State Board of Education to use allocated federal funding for these and to implement phase three of the language assessment program in the Kansas School for the Deaf.
This raised concerns from Rep. Stephanie Byers, D-Wichita, about using limited federal dollars to supplant state budget costs.
“Those are simply temporary monies that are great for one-time purchases, but they’re going to expire,” Byers said. “Are we setting up districts then to be financially responsible in the future for something that we may not have the funding for?”
Rep. Kristey Williams, a Republican from Augusta and chairwoman of the committee, said this had been done previously under former Gov. Kathleen Sebelius.
Two amendments proposed by Williams were also tacked on to the bill. The first would apply to the number of required school days or school term hours. Days would only be counted if the student is physically present in school.
The second amendment makes it so students enrolled remotely would receive $5,000 in state aid, about a third of the usual rate.
The mandated hours would mark a return to pre-pandemic law with the inclusion of the 40 allowable hours remotely. Some questioned how this would work during bad weather like last week, which had negative temperatures during several days.
“This doesn’t really change how we’ve done inclement weather days before, except it gives them an opportunity to use five or six or seven four-hour or half days, even for remote, which is great,” Williams said. “It actually gives more flexibility than we previously had.”
Opposition to the amendment argued it offered flexibility to districts but would reduce funding if they exercised that wiggle room.
Also included was a recommendation to give every classroom teacher a $500 bonus if they worked throughout the year, the extension of the state 20 mill tax levy, and a bill directing school districts to allocate funding to achieve state education goals.
Rep. Jarrod Ousley, D-Merriam, expressed concern that packing so much into the bill would open it to heavy scrutiny and likely break federal rules or regulations about the use of funds.
“It seems to me like we’re adding a whole lot of policy and a whole lot of budget without a whole lot of public input or a chance to input,” Ousley said. “We could possibly be out of compliance with federal guidelines.”