May 19, 2024

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Chances for school choice this session narrow substantially

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School choice legislation is not yet entirely dead in Kansas this year, although opportunities for passage this session are narrowing.

House Substitute for Senate Bill 83 (SB 83) passed the House by a vote of 65-58 but  failed 17-20 late last week in the Senate, likely killing any chance of getting it to the governor’s desk — where it would probably have been vetoed — this year.

Americans for Prosperity-Kansas State Director Elizabeth Patton, who testified for the bill, said part of the failure was because the vote was held late at night and several state senators weren’t there.

“At the end of that evening, it’s three o’clock in the morning and I think that that ultimately was the challenge,” she said in a phone interview this week. “We knew that it was on a margin. That was fairly slim. So when we had some senators missing at that point in the evening, that made it pretty difficult to get that to the governor’s desk.”

Scheduling was a constant issue last week as the regular session wound down.

The conference committees were meeting regularly last week on two education bills but scheduling was a constant issue — a fairly standard problem each year as floor votes and other conference committees meet.  SB 83— the choice bill — included Education Savings Accounts, tax credits and special education funding. SB 113 was the non-special education K-12 budget that would allow nonpublic students to participate in Kansas State High School Activities Association (KSHSAA) and other policy issues.

On the afternoon of Thursday, April 6, both bills came out of the same conference committee. After 10 p.m. that same day the House began debate on SB 83, which was then approved with one more vote than the previous SB 83 vote in the House. The bill then failed in the Senate 17-20. Two “yeses” were absent and 1 “yes” switched to no as a procedural matter to allow the possibility of moving to reconsider when the legislature comes back later this month. 

Kansas Policy Institute President James Franko, who also testified for the bill, said it’s possible, but not a foregone conclusion the Senate can get to 21 yes votes if everyone shows up.

KPI is the Sentinel’s parent company.

Patton said she’s hopeful a bill will still make it to Governor Laura Kelly’s desk.

“I think that is what families in Kansas want,” Patton said. “We have seen time and again that 60% of parents in particular, want to have choice for their children.

“I think we need to get it on Governor Kelly’s desk. If for no other reason to let them know that we’re fighting for every kid in Kansas to have the same opportunity.”

It is an opportunity, Franko points out, already exists — for some families.

“We already have school choice in Kansas – but only for the families that can afford it. Many families pay what is functionally ‘tuition’ in home prices and property taxes to live in certain areas,” he said. “And yet, even in Shawnee Mission only about one-third of kids are proficient in math or English. Clearly we need to be doing more to realize that educational excellence is achieved through innovation. This bill isn’t a silver bullet but it’s a step in the right direction.”

Bill originally passed by House and Senate, changed at the last minute

The House had originally passed House Substitute for Senate Bill 83, which — because it had passed as a substitute bill — only required the “concurrence” of the Senate, rather than being returned to committee, would have provided an additional $72 million in special education funding, addressed teacher shortages and retention challenges with teacher pay increases, would have given smaller schools flexibility and time to adjust to any attendance fluctuations and — most importantly — would have provided Education Savings Accounts to parents across the state.

SB 83 passed by a vote of 64-61, with a lone Democrat, Rep. Marvin Robinson from Kansas City, Kansas, voting in favor of school choice. 

“They changed it substantially,” Patton said. ” So what they ended up putting in SB83 was codifying the existing KEEP program, and then also adding an additional component to that so that number one, the KEEP program stays in place, past the elimination or the usage of the ARPA funding, but it moves it into being a permanent program for Kansas.”

The Kansas Education Enrichment Program provides a $1,000 award per eligible child for Kansas families up to 185% of the federal poverty level, “to pay for a variety of goods and services that promote educational learning recovery and facilitate academic enrichment opportunities,” according to the program website.

“We think, funny enough, that Gov. Kelly was on the right track with her learning loss routes,” Patton said. “So it added on an additional grant award opportunity for low income families up to 250% of the poverty line to receive the opportunity to apply for a base state aid grant as well. “We think that was a really unique way to look at it. Having those two paths and the KEEP program become law. If Governor Kelly were to sign it, it’s ultimately based on her program.”

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