Kansas legislators’ war on the poor opens worrisome new front: School vouchers and tax avoidance

March 13, 2023 3:33 am
A tour group observes the Brown v. Board mural on the third floor of the Kansas Statehouse, April 26, 2022 (Sherman Smith/Kansas Reflector)

A mural at the Kansas Statehouse honors the Brown v. Topeka Board of Education case. Today, writes opinion editor Clay Wirestone, legislators are waging war on the poor through public education. (Sherman Smith/Kansas Reflector)

Kansas legislative leaders have declared war on the poor. They have pushed bills penalizing those receiving government assistance through the House Welfare Reform Committee. They have advocated a flat tax plan that benefits the wealthy at the expense of everyone else. We have watched these proposals unfold in recent weeks, watched and heard the disdain.

Yet the war has another front, another theater of conflict: School vouchers. The programs envisioned by lawmakers would redirect state money to private schools, benefit privileged families rather than needy ones, and starve the public education system of vital resources.

In their latest move, GOP lawmakers bundled a voucher scheme with special education spending and teacher pay guarantees (read here, if you dare).

It was all deeply cynical politics, daring moderate Republicans and Democrats to vote against popular proposals. But no one should mistake the outright class warfare going on in front of our eyes. Legislative leaders demand the poor sacrifice for the sake of their betters: the rich.

We can all see it. We can all watch the battle unfolding.

Kansas House Democrats — Jarrod Ousley of Merriam, Brad Boyd of Olathe, Mari-Lynn Poskin of Leawood and Valdenia Winn of Kansas City — were critical of a voucher-like bill directing millions of state tax dollars to private schools passed Monday by the House K-12 Education Budget Committee. (Tim Carpenter/Kansas Reflector)
Kansas House Democrats — Jarrod Ousley of Merriam, Brad Boyd of Olathe, Mari-Lynn Poskin of Leawood and Valdenia Winn of Kansas City — were critical of a bill directing millions of state tax dollars to private schools. It was passed last week by the House K-12 Education Budget Committee. (Tim Carpenter/Kansas Reflector)


Think tank thoughts

Even think tanks in Washington, D.C., understand what’s happening.

A brief last week from the Institute on Taxation and Economic Policy, which has analyzed flat tax proposals for Kansas Reflector readers, makes clear just how much destruction vouchers can cause.

I reached out to ITEP’s Carl Davis to learn more. He wrote the paper, highlighting how voucher programs piggyback on wealthy people’s desire to avoid taxes. Add that to the problems caused by siphoning students from public school systems, and you have a recipe for disaster.

“The voucher tax policies that states have set up are just bizarre,” Davis told me via email. An expanded version of Kansas’ policy was introduced this session before being gutted for the current voucher bill. “You don’t usually see states paying people to give their money to private organizations, and yet that’s exactly what’s happening here. The federal tax code wasn’t written with these kinds of bizarre tax credits in mind, and so we need the IRS to step in and fill in the gaps that these things are slipping through. These problems can be fixed.”

He argues that the Internal Revenue Service needs to tax these kind of credits, given that rich folks have essentially made money from their supposed good deeds.

“It’s a new spin on the old trickle-down philosophy,” Davis said. “The states are giving money to rich people under the guise of helping regular folks.”

Or as Rep. Mari-Lynn Poskin, D-Overland Park, put it in January: “Holy tax scams, that is a masterful shell game.”

The record in other states shows just how tilted the playing field can become. ITEP’s analysis of data from Arizona, Louisiana and Virginia show that these voucher tax credits are used almost exclusively by high-income families. In Arizona, 60% of the credits are taken by families making more than $200,000 a year. In Virginia, it’s 87%. In Louisiana, it’s 99%. On the other side of the ledger, only 2% of families in Arizona making under $50,000 take the credit. In Virginia, it’s 1%. In Louisiana, it’s a hefty 0%.

Tell me again how these programs supposedly help needy students and their families. Tell me again how these programs supposedly improve student achievement while padding the bankrolls of those who already have their children enrolled in private schools.

Davis offered a vital big-picture view.

“When we move more kids out of the public education system there are fewer families with any stake in seeing the system succeed,” he said. “When there are shortcomings in public schools we should be working hard to fix them, not encouraging people to flee the system. What’s happening here is eroding the public’s level of investment in public education, both literally and figuratively.”

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)


The educators’ perspective

We can all see it. Especially Kansas educators.

That’s why more than 100 signed a letter last week to legislators protesting this approach.

“We have signed this letter because a scholarship system is not in the best interest for students in Kansas,” writes the group, which includes national and state teachers of the year and hall of fame members. “It will create further inequities in our communities. We should be working collectively to build the strongest public schools in the nation — a goal that public educators work towards each day.”

No teacher goes into the field for the money. No teacher goes into the field to indoctrinate. No teacher goes into the field to do anything other than teach children and build a future filled with knowledgeable adults. No one who signed this letter did so for the clout. They did it because they care and because they want to improve the state of Kansas.

The wealthy who would benefit the most from these voucher programs don’t give a flying fig about Kansas. Not really. Not when they have so little at stake.

If the state tumbles down the rabbit hole of underfunded public schools, with teachers fleeing in droves, the richest among us can simply pack up and leave for another state. They can employ private tutors or start a school of their own. They will consider the tax savings worth the moderate trouble. Meanwhile, poor or middle-class families using vouchers will find that $5,000 a year doesn’t go nearly as far as advertised.

The teachers make this all clear in their letter: “We believe a well-educated citizenry is needed for our democracy at a state and national level to function at its highest level. We believe public education is a public good.” They add: “Every child in Kansas has a right to a high-quality education from a nearby public school.”

Few rich people want that. They prefer the system that made them rich to keep it that way. The more students who learn about the world, the more who understand the forces that levitate a few while pummeling the rest, the more that rich people’s fortunes will be at risk. True education, quality education, creates citizens who ask “why?” It creates citizens who demand more from their government. And it creates citizens who believe that we all can learn and do better.

That’s what it did for me. It’s what it can do for other kids, too.

Gov. Laura Kelly
Gov. Laura Kelly greets student Feb. 21, 2023, at Jardine Elementary School in Topeka. The governor renewed her dedication to fully funding special education in K-12 public schools. (Sherman Smith/Kansas Reflector)


Where we land

Supporting programs that benefit the poor and less wealthy among us will never be popular with legislators supported by the 1%.

Voters have a say, however. In the past, when public education in Kansas has been threatened, that same public has made its preferences loud and clear. Parents and students appreciate their public schools and teachers. No, not every teacher or administrator gets everything right all the time. No one should expect that. But lawmakers should know they tamper with public schools at their peril.

We might take heed from Republican Rep. Adam Thomas of Olathe, who tried last week to hold a conversation between legislators and public school officials.

“They absolutely need to be heard,” he said. “I think to just be ignored in any capacity is not our duty as legislators. I think we need to hear every voice. We need to have every voice at the table. I didn’t go out and find six super conservative or six super liberal school board members. I went out and said, ‘I just want school board members.’ I don’t know where these people are at politically because I don’t ask the question.”

Education opens doors and propels students to future success. State legislators have perhaps no more important role or purpose than supporting public schools. Turning their backs on that system means turning their backs on those most in need.

We have all watched this war on the poor widen and spread. It need not continue.

Clay Wirestone is Kansas Reflector opinion editor. Through its opinion section, the Reflector works to amplify the voices of people who are affected by public policies or excluded from public debate. Find information, including how to submit your own commentary, here.

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Clay Wirestone
Clay Wirestone

Clay Wirestone serves as Kansas Reflector's opinion editor. His columns have been published in the Kansas City Star and Wichita Eagle, along with newspapers and websites across the state and nation. He has written and edited for newsrooms in Kansas, New Hampshire, Florida and Pennsylvania. He has also fact checked politicians, researched for Larry the Cable Guy, and appeared in PolitiFact, Mental Floss, and cnn.com. Before joining the Reflector in summer 2021, Clay spent four years at the nonprofit Kansas Action for Children as communications director. Beyond the written word, he has drawn cartoons, hosted podcasts, designed graphics and moderated debates. Clay graduated from the University of Kansas and lives in Lawrence with his husband and son.