Kansas lawmakers polish plan to fully fund public schools, revive voucher program

By: - April 27, 2023 7:56 am
Sen. Molly Baumgardner appears during a conference committee meeting on public schools

Sen. Molly Baumgardner says concerns about lawmakers removing funding for public schools were based on “misinformation” spread by public school advocates. (Sherman Smith/Kansas Reflector)

TOPEKA — Kansas lawmakers have restored language in the public school finance plan to ensure K-12 schools continue to be fully funded beyond the upcoming academic year and revived a voucher program.

Sen. Molly Baumgardner, a Louisburg Republican, lashed out at lobbyists who were “screaming fire in a crowded theater” because of changes made to the school finance plan before lawmakers adjourned in early April. The changes stripped language dealing with annual inflation adjustments beyond the next school year.

Public school advocates viewed the change as an attempt to reduce school funding by hundreds of millions of dollars in future years.

“It is my recommendation that we put that language back in so that we can’t scream fire anymore,” Baumgardner said. “We can’t promote this false narrative that the legislators are going to screw the school districts and take money from them. No money has been taken.”

A handful of lawmakers met Wednesday to negotiate revisions to the school finance plan and make a last-ditch effort to pass a voucher program for the benefit of families who send their children to private schools.

Senate Bill 113, which originally dealt with regulations for naturopathic doctors, now packages funding for public schools with provisions that include creation of a special education task force. A modified version of the voucher program and a boost to special education funding were inserted into House Bill 2089, an unrelated bill that originally dealt with prepaid insurance plans.

The House narrowly passed a version of the voucher program earlier this year, but that bill failed in the Senate.

The new voucher program still grants about $5,000 to students attending private schools, but is now limited to residents of the 10 most populous counties. The change addresses concerns that rural schools would suffer financially if students left to take advantage of the voucher program.

Now, school districts in rural areas would have to opt in to the program. Schools districts in the more populous areas could opt out from year to year only if their at-risk students achieve college-ready math and reading scores.

The program is limited to families who earn up to 250% of the federal poverty level, or whose public school closes, or who are already in the program.

Opponents of the program say private schools are unregulated, may be unaccredited, favor wealthy families, can refuse LGBTQ students and may otherwise cherry-pick the students they allow to attend. The state will not require reporting of test scores or other data for students who receive a voucher to compare their performance to public school students.

The first year of the program would be paid for with federal COVID-19 relief aid. The obligation would then transfer to the state general budget. A fiscal estimate for an early version of the program showed it would cost about $150 million annually, with $135 million going to students already enrolled in private schools.

Republicans say the program is designed to give parents a choice about where to send their students to school, even though the Senate president acknowledged that a voucher won’t be enough to allow a low-income family to send a child to private school.

“We hear a lot about choice when it comes to abortion, and that’s a life,” said Rep. Brenda Landwehr, a Wichita Republican. “But we don’t want to allow a living, breathing child that is in a failing school to have a choice.”

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Sherman Smith
Sherman Smith

Sherman Smith is the editor in chief of Kansas Reflector. He writes about things that powerful people don't want you to know. A two-time Kansas Press Association journalist of the year, his award-winning reporting includes stories about education, technology, foster care, voting, COVID-19, sex abuse, and access to reproductive health care. Before founding Kansas Reflector in 2020, he spent 16 years at the Topeka Capital-Journal. He graduated from Emporia State University in 2004, back when the school still valued English and journalism. He was raised in the country at the end of a dead end road in Lyon County.