Rep. Susan Humphries, R-Wichita, said House Bill 2119, which passed 65-58, would open the door for lower-income families dissatisfied with school board decisions to choose a better option for their children. (Noah Taborda/Kansas Reflector)
TOPEKA — A bill with wide-ranging impacts to education policy and the public school budget passed the Kansas House by a narrow margin Tuesday despite bipartisan concerns over several provisions.
House Bill 2119, the Student Empowerment Act, would take the per-pupil amount of money normally given to public schools and place it into education savings accounts for students to use toward private school tuition. The bill would also limit funding for remote learning options by providing a finance formula based on virtual school rather than in-person instruction.
A provision added in the House K-12 Budget Committee would expand the state’s school choice efforts by reimbursing organizations that grant scholarships for private schools up to $8,000 in tax credits per student per year. While only about 600 students from low-income families in poorly performing schools are currently eligible, the proposed legislation would expand eligibility greatly.
The bill was amended in committee to soften some enrollment eligibility concerns, but public education advocates remain skeptical. Critics have dubbed the measure a “Frankenstein bill” for the way public education policy and appropriations were stitched together. They argued private schools are not held to the same standards as public schools in many respects.
Proponents, however, say the bill is a necessary response to growing achievement gaps since the onset of the pandemic. Many pointed to frustrations among parents who feel school districts are not listening to them or are prioritizing teachers over students.
Of those who are upset with the way their school has served them, only those who have the money to pick up and move can exercise educational choice, said Rep. Susan Humphries, R-Wichita.
“It is unconscionable to me that anyone would deny that opportunity and freedom to other students and families so that their children can be better served,” Humphries said. “This bill offers hope for the most vulnerable and those who need it most.”
The behemoth bill held off scrutiny from both sides of the aisle on a 65-58 vote. Eighteen Republicans joined all House Democrats in opposing the legislation.
Several who voted in favor of the bill expressed a desire to see certain kinks ironed out when the House and Senate come together to discuss their stances on the education budget.
Rep. Valdenia Winn, D-Kansas City, Kansas, said in passing the bill, her colleagues were casting a blind eye to potential cost ramifications and a bevy of other education issues needing attention. For example, she argued teacher education standards were out of date.
For all the discussions on how to best serve students and state education, Winn said curriculum and educational opportunity are not being considered.
“There are a lot of issues that could help explain low achievement. We haven’t talked about them,” she said. “I’m not willing to give up on public schools. I’m here waiting to reform public education.”
Instead, HB2119 would undermine public schools, she said. Winn argued private schools are not required to meet the same standards in reporting data and choosing students.
House Minority Leader Tom Sawyer, D-Wichita, tacked on the argument that the bill’s policy would shift public tax dollars to private schools with no strings attached.
Rep. Kristey Williams, R-Augusta, and chairwoman of the House K-12 Budget Committee, countered those concerns by saying the bill would fully fund public education as requested in the governor’s budget for 2021, 2022 and the estimate for 2023.
The bill also calls for $10 million in federal funds to be directed toward mental health programs, school safety grants and community schools, Williams said.
“This bill addresses the issue of school finance, along with student achievement, in an effort to cast light on an ever-expanding achievement gap between the haves and the have nots,” Williams said. “It forces us to take time to consider accountability, transparency and student outcomes.”
Public school advocates, however, pointed to the 71-52 passage of House Bill 2397, as a reason to doubt the promise of fully funding public education. The measure, a budget bill dealing with appropriations from 2021 to 2024, calls for a 2% cut across the board, including public education.
Many who voted for those cuts were the same lawmakers on the House education budget committee who touted the full funding in House Bill 2119, said Mark Desseti, of the Kansas National Education Association
“Here they are with their bill that they count as fully funding the governor’s budget, and then they vote to cut the governor’s budget 2% across the board (which) takes it out of schools,” Dessert said. “So, the bill now comes out, with that, possibly worse than it was at the beginning of the debate.”
The House and Senate will now have to reconcile over distinctions in their budget bills. The process may be an unusual one as the K-12 budget in the House resides in both House Bill 2119 and House Bill 2397.
Meanwhile, Senate Bill 267, the proposal coming from across the rotunda, holds off on $570 million for K-12 education.
As a House Bill, the Senate cannot simply concur, but it is subject to a conference committee, where legislators from both chambers can hash out their differences.
Apart from financial implications, some who voted to support the mega bill hoped certain policy issues would be worked on during those forthcoming deliberations. Rep. Mark Samsel, R-Wellsville, said he had already jeopardized trust between superintendents and others in his district by voting in favor of the bill, but would not continue to do so if changes were not made.
“I’m putting my trust in our own leadership,” Samsel said. “… I have faith and trust that we’ll work that out as we go to conference committee and further on.”
Even if the sizable bill should pass in its current form, the bill seems certain to be vetoed by Gov. Laura Kelly. Legislators appear to lack the votes to override that action should it occur based on the narrow vote margin in the House.
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