Laci Ybarra, Jamie Klem, Rob Klem, Brandi Kaus and Clayton Kaus stand outside the Augusta Historic Theatre. (Photo submitted by Brandi Kaus)
TOPEKA — Kansas children don’t generally find a “spiritual perspective” in public schools, Rep. Kristey Williams said, defending a voucher-like program that would funnel state tax dollars to unregulated private schools.
“There are some kids that do need Jesus first, before they care about science and math,” said Williams, speaking with unusual candor about motivation for the Legislature’s consideration of changes to funding public and private education in Kansas.
Williams, an Augusta Republican and the driving force behind Senate Bill 83, made a hometown appearance Sunday to talk with community members during a 90-minute forum moderated by teachers Brandi Kaus, Laci Ybarra, Jamie Klem and Rob Klem. Almost a hundred people showed up to the event, which was planned and put together by the four in about 24 hours.
Kaus, who taught all of Willams’ children at Augusta Middle School, said she was puzzled and hurt that someone who utilized the public education system for her own children would turn around and “just annihilate public schools.”
“I don’t see how she can’t see that what she’s doing will hurt all of us,” Kaus said.
Kaus said the event originated through a heated Facebook message exchange with Williams, in which Kaus asked Williams to explain why the proposal was a good idea. Williams agreed to come and talk to the public about the program.
SB83, also known as the Sunflower Education Equity Act, would use state money to fund private schools starting in the 2023-2024 school year. Each eligible private school student could draw a maximum of $5,000 annually from the state treasury. Any nonpublic preschool, elementary or high school that teaches reading, grammar, mathematics, social studies and science would be eligible to benefit financially from the proposed law.
The voucher-like bill passed the House 64-61 with arm twisting by GOP leaders. It contrasted with the approach embraced by the Kansas Senate calling for tax credits and student scholarships for the benefit of private schools. The bill specifies eligible schools wouldn’t be subject to government oversight.
During the Sunday meeting, several audience members expressed concern about the impact of the voucher-program proposal on the future K-12 public education, while others suggested regulation of the program could be insufficient. Jamie Klem said the audience was frustrated by William’s answers.
“Just about every single question that we posed to her, she skirted around or danced around the issue rather than directly answering the question,” Klem said. “So after a few of those, the crowd grew more and more frustrated with her and started to vocalize that. I wouldn’t say it was angry but more so impassioned.”
During the event, Williams said teacher licenses and credentials didn’t necessarily define a good educator.
“I actually believe great teachers are not made through licensure,” said Williams, who chairs the House K-12 budget committee. “I think great schools are made not through accreditation. I think great schools and great teachers and great people come through great practices and hard work.”
Under the legislation, the context or religious nature of a product or service couldn’t be considered when determining expenditure of the $5,000 allotment from the state, meaning the money could be used to buy Bibles and religious objects.
Williams said the proposal would give more options to Kansas parents looking to provide their children religious education.
“I’ll tell you one thing that’s missing in our society, and you won’t find it, generally, openly in public schools, and that’s the spiritual perspective,” Williams said. “If a parent believes having Jesus with their education is important, they can do that. There’s a God-sized hole in a lot of people’s hearts.”
The House also merged into the voucher-like bill appropriation of $592.7 million for special education programs in fiscal year 2024 and placed a mandate on school districts to increase teacher salaries.
Gov. Laura Kelly, who has repeatedly campaigned for increased special education funding, said she disapproved of bundling special education funding and teacher pay raises with the controversial voucher-like legislation.
“I believe that public monies ought to be spent on public schools,” Kelly said during a Monday news conference. “Public schools are very important here in the state of Kansas. We’re a rural state. Public schools are often the hub of the community and anything to undermine them would be undermining the entire fabric and structure of Kansas itself.”
There are thought to be 125 accredited and 28 unaccredited private schools operating in Kansas, and most of those would be characterized as religious based. Sixty-five Kansas counties don’t have private schools, with one-third of the total established in Johnson and Sedgwick counties.
Ybarra said Williams didn’t pay attention to her constituents’ concerns.
“What we wanted from her was for her to listen to us because she represents us, her constituents, and she should be taking what we want back to Topeka,” Ybarra said. “She was there to change our minds, but she wasn’t there to listen to us.”
“She’s not capable of listening,” Rob Klem added. “She made that very clear.”
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