House education panel advances Kansas school voucher program

By: - February 8, 2023 6:10 pm
Rep. Kristey Williams

Rep. Kristey Williams says an education savings account program will provide more opportunities to Kansas students during a Feb. 8, 2023, committee meeting. (Sherman Smith/Kansas Reflector)

TOPEKA — Rep. Kristey Williams defended her proposal Wednesday for redirecting public money to non-public schools as a way to facilitate competition for educating children.

Her K-12 Education Budget Committee passed a modified version of House Bill 2218, including an amendment from Williams that would delay full implementation of the voucher program for four years. The program allows parents to set aside a portion of public school funding — about $5,000 per student — to be used at unregulated private or home schools, which don’t have to be accredited.

Williams, an Augusta Republican, said the bill will expand opportunities for students, and that a “rising tide lifts all boats.”

“We’re not just talking about old-fashioned public-private,” Williams said. “We’re talking about education savings accounts that are highly flexible, personalized for all kinds of students that may be learning at home, that may be learning in new ways that we have not yet envisioned.”

The bill passed on a party-line vote, with the committee’s four Democrats opposed.

A fiscal analysis prepared by the state budget director indicated the vouchers would cost about $150 million if 1% of public school students participate in the program. The calculation shows $135 million would go to students already enrolled in private schools.

The Williams amendment would restrict first-year participation to families who earn less than 300% of the federal poverty limit, with a maximum of 2,000 students allowed to participate. The second year would expand eligibility to 400% of federal poverty limit and up to 4,000 students. The income threshold would be lifted for the third year, with a cap of 8,000 students. There would be no restrictions for the fourth year.

Six other amendments addressed minor changes of language within the bill.

Rep. Mari-Lynn Poskin
Rep. Mari-Lynn Poskin raises concerns about the voucher program during the Feb. 8, 2023, hearing on the bill. (Sherman Smith/Kansas Reflector)

The vote followed a presentation from the Kansas Policy Institute that argued taxpayers had not received a return on their investment in public schools.

Supporters of public schools opposed the voucher program because it redirects funding to private schools that can pick and choose which students to accept, leaving public schools with higher-needs kids and depleted resources. Other concerns include the absence of private schools in half of the state’s counties, as well as the creation of a new board to oversee the voucher program, with spots reserved for education committee leaders.

Rep. Mari-Lynn Poskin, an Overland Park Democrat, raised concerns during Wednesday’s meeting about the potential for tax dollars to be used on neo-Nazi propaganda, based on provisions in the bill that prevent government oversight of school content.

Williams said the intent of the bill was to avoid government restrictions that would run afoul of First Amendment protections for religion and speech.

“I just think that’s a good thing for the committee to consider,” Poskin said.

Correction: This story has been updated with a more detailed description of the bill’s fiscal analysis.

Our stories may be republished online or in print under Creative Commons license CC BY-NC-ND 4.0. We ask that you edit only for style or to shorten, provide proper attribution and link to our web site. Please see our republishing guidelines for use of photos and graphics.

Sherman Smith
Sherman Smith

Sherman Smith is the 2021 and 2022 Kansas Press Association’s journalist of the year. He has written award-winning news stories about the instability of the Kansas foster care system, misconduct by government officials, sexual abuse, technology, education, and the Legislature. He previously spent 16 years at the Topeka Capital-Journal. He is a lifelong Kansan.