A small scholarship program that allows some kids in failing schools to attend private schools is under fire in the Kansas Legislature. Language to restrict the program was inserted in school finance bills in both the House and the Senate.
Though most media outlets focus reports on the bills on the dollar amounts of additional school funding, some organizations, like the Family Policy Alliance of Kansas, are issuing action alerts warning supporters the small program may be in legislative cross hairs.
“Why are some lawmakers attempting to gut a program that serves just 188 students and costs only a few hundred thousand dollars each year?” Eric Teetsel, President of the Family Policy Alliance of Kansas, asked in an email to supporters.
In a separate interview, Teetsel said it’s obvious someone with an agenda inserted language that handcuffs the program into House and Senate education funding bills.
“The state of school choice in Kansas is piddly. It’s nothing,” Teetsel said. “All we have is this tax credit. Somebody clearly wants to see this thing changed.”
Nearly identical language in both bills, HB 2410 and SB 151, would restrict the schools that have access to the program and could limit which kids are eligible.
James Franko, Vice President and Policy Director for the Kansas Policy Institute, said the attempts to restrict the program are death by a thousand cuts.
“This is an attempt to strangle the program,” Franko said. “This prevents more kids from having an opportunity that may help them achieve success.”
Implemented in 2015, the Kansas Tax Credit for Low Income Students Scholarship Program allows some businesses to earn a tax credit for donating to a scholarship program.
Eligibility for the scholarship program is tight. In order to access a scholarship, students must attend one of about 100 specific Title I public schools and they must come from low income families.
Only 188 students currently use the program, utilizing about $550,000 in funding to the the state. Franko said those kids are receiving an education using about $3,000 of donated money apiece. That’s compared to the more than $13,000 per pupil public schools receive from local, state, and federal sources.
“The government school lobby wants to eliminate this program and increase the cost to the state by $10,000 per kid,” Franko said. That, he said, is evidence that some legislators care more about protecting public institutions than educating children.
Public schools in Kansas are a $6 billion industry, receiving almost half of every dollar of state funding in addition to funding from federal and local sources.
“The education establishment will use every opportunity to crush competition. They prefer their monopoly,” Teetsel wrote.
Sen. Lynn Rogers admitted as much. Rogers, a Wichita Democrat, also serves on the Wichita USD 459 board of education. The board recently sold an old school building. A caveat in the sales contract? The building can not be used as a school at any time with funding “derives from public funds (tax dollars) or if donors to the school qualify for the receipt of tax credits for such donations,” a paragraph of the contract reads.
Rogers supported the discriminatory contract language.
“I don’t think we want to use our tax dollars and basically help someone else start a school that would compete against us,” Rogers said.
Dave Trabert, President of the Kansas Policy Institute, said the education lobby is more concerned about money than they are about educating children.
“The kids who are using these tax credit scholarships are showing improvement, but that doesn’t matter to the education lobby. They’d rather have those kids stuck in some of the worst performing schools in Kansas so they get more money.”
Franko called the effort to limit the scholarship program “hard-hearted.”
“It’s not about dollars and cents. It’s not about any of that other stuff. We have staggering achievement gaps. Our lower income kids are so far behind,” Franko said. “The scholarships give these families a chance to pick their schools and have an opportunity for their kids to succeed.”