‘Holy tax scams’: Kansas lawmakers fight over plan to fund private schools with tax write-offs

Critics of proposed legislation say the bill pits public and private schools against each other

By: - January 26, 2023 10:36 am
Rep. Kristey Williams

Rep. Kristey Williams says expansion of a tax credit for private school scholarships would give Kansas children better educational opportunities. (Rachel Mipro/Kansas Reflector)

TOPEKA — Lawmakers and education officials sparred for more than two hours Wednesday over a proposal to expand a private school tax credit originally billed as a way to serve low-income Kansas students.

Education officials and Democrats criticized House Bill 2048 during a tense, jampacked House K-12 Education Budget Committee hearing. Critics said the legislation would harm Kansas students and serve special interest groups by incentivizing the privatization of Kansas education, ultimately taking funds away from Kansas public schools.

The tax credit currently allows organizations and taxpayers to write off 70% of scholarships they provide to private schools, with a maximum allowable credit of $500,000 per year. HB2048 would expand student eligibility for the program and allow a 100% tax write-off.

“Holy tax scams, that is a masterful shell game,” said Rep. Mari-Lynn Poskin, an Overland Park Democrat. “For the good of the committee, I just want to reiterate that any religious organization or dark money special interest group can basically divert their group’s entire Kansas tax liability up to those limits from our state’s general funds to scholarship-granting organizations for distribution to private schools that are not subject to the same oversight as our Kansas public schools.”

Under current law, students must be Kansas residents and qualify for free or reduced lunches under the National School Lunch Act, and meet other standards, to get scholarships to private schools. Criteria includes being enrolled in a public school in grades K-8 during the prior school year, being seven years or younger at the time of seeking a scholarship, or having previously received a scholarship.

HB2048 would remove the reduced/free lunch eligibility requirement. Instead, students would need to have an annual family income under or equal to 250% of the federal poverty level. Other eligibility criteria would include having a parent serving in active duty, having a parent who is a firefighter, medical service provider or a law enforcement officer, or having been in foster care or a kinship care placement.

Taxpayers who contribute to a scholarship-granting organization could receive a 100% reimbursement in tax credits, starting next year, depending on how widespread the program is used.

Rep. Kristey Williams, an Augusta Republican and committee chairwoman, said she couldn’t give exact figures for how many people would be eligible for scholarships under the expanded program. She said the legislation is geared toward helping more students.

“We want kids to have the best education,” Williams said. “It should not matter to any of us where they go. We should be funding kids, students, not systems. And as soon as we learn to fund kids, then they can start achieving well, graduating and going onto the workforce.”

Williams also introduced a private school voucher bill at the start of the meeting, to make it easier for parents to pull money directly out of a public school’s budget and use it on private school tuition.

Proponents of the bill included private school officials, private school leaders and scholarship program organizers. Delia Shropshire, president of the Holy Savior Catholic Academy in Wichita, said the program allowed her school to serve more children.

“With this opportunity we can ensure that every child has a chance to learn, grow and develop in an academic environment that meets their academic, cultural, social and emotional and spiritual needs,” Shropshire said.

Opponents of the bill included the Kansas Association of School Boards and public school advocates.

Kansas State Board of Education member Ann Mah said she was concerned about the lack of data on the program’s success.

“So where’s the beef?” Mah said. “Where are the numbers to show that it worked, that our Kansas scholarship students actually do better academically in private schools? Where is the oversight?”

Mah said she was concerned because Kansas private schools can select and reject students as they choose, are not required to provide special services for high-risk students, aren’t subject to oversight, and have different standards than public schools in the state.

Mah said there is a double standard because lawmakers wouldn’t give public schools a massive funding hike without significant data.

“I guess that helping struggling students was never the objective in the first place. For now, without proof of any success, we’re moving on to paying middle-class successful students to go to private schools,” Mah said. “And to make it worse, you’re allowing students to go from nationally recognized public schools to lower-performing private schools. And we can’t forget the money factor. Who ever heard of a program that allows a $500,000 tax break? I’m guessing the billionaires who are promoting privatizing and defunding public schools really like this bill.”

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Rachel Mipro
Rachel Mipro

A graduate of Louisiana State University, Rachel Mipro has covered state government in Baton Rouge and New Orleans. She and her fellow team of journalists were 2022 Goldsmith Prize Semi-Finalists for their work featuring the rise of the KKK in northern Louisiana, following racially-motivated shootings in 1960. With her move to the Midwest, Rachel is now turning her focus toward issues within Kansas public policies.