Choice has existed since the beginning of time, but most Kansas parents can’t choose how to best educate their children, Wade Moore, founder and dean of Urban Prep Academy, told a crowd gathered in the Capitol.
“Man was born with the power of choice. God allowed man to choose what he would do in the Garden of Eden…Choice has always been around,” he said. “Now we want choice to not just be there, but we want to activate choice as far as education is concerned.”
Urban Prep Academy in Wichita serves primarily low-income and minority students in Wichita. A few dozen of its students attended a rally at the Capitol for School Choice Week. They were joined by students, parents and staff from a handful of private and charter schools around the state. They filled part of the Capitol’s second floor, but only a handful of legislators attended the rally. They likely heard the children’s cheers, however. Their loud chants and applause during Moore’s boisterous speech echoed throughout the building.
Martin Luther King, Jr. outlined the shameful conditions of African Americans in society, when he spoke at the Lincoln Memorial in 1963, Moore said.
“He spoke movingly of a people after a full century of emancipation… They were still bound in the shackles of inequality,” Moore said. “I believe that’s what we have now as far as the education system is now.”
Though much has changed since King gave his famous speech on the steps of the Lincoln Memorial in 1963, many institutions remain stuck in the past, he said.
“This is painfully apparent in our school system,” he said. “Schools are supposed to be a place where the tools of a productive and successful life are formed.”
However, the public school system doesn’t allow parents to move their children into different schools when there’s a problem.
“We have to change education in order to fit the real vision for America and fit the real vision for Kansas,” Moore said. “Our economy will thrive again if we’re able to get our children educated, and parents have choice. It will drive our economy. We can’t allow our education system to remain stuck in the last century by policy and politics.”
James Franko, Vice President of the Kansas Policy Institute, said it’s time something changes in the state.
“For too long the education discussion has been about court battles and spending and the last thing on anyone’s mind is you kids,” Franko said. “…School choice is about each individual student having the opportunity to succeed. We care about each individual child.”
Kansas boasts a small tax credit scholarship program that allows corporations to donate money in exchange for a tax credit. The money–about $5 million last year–is used as scholarships to send students to private and charter schools.
The program is continually under attack by the public school lobby and lawmakers. Last year, House Democrats pursued amendments that would eliminate the tax credit program. Lawmakers also offered legislation to phase-out the scholarship program, and another proposal would have limited private school participation in the tax credit program.
“I don’t want to come off as anti-private schools, but I oppose the (program) concept. It’s a backdoor to vouchers,” Rep. Valdenia Winn, a Kansas City, Kansas, Democrat, said during an education committee hearing last April.
St. Matthew Elementary Catholic School in Topeka uses the tax credit program to provide an education for students that wouldn’t otherwise be able to afford the school’s tuition, Principle Heather Stressman told the ralliers on Wednesday.
“Each year, I get to be the bearer of great news,” Stressman said. She tells worried parents that the tax credit program can provide scholarships for their children to attend St. Matthews.
Three are the school’s scholarship students are children of a single mother who worried when the elementary school in her neighborhood closed. Another scholarship student is a first-generation American thriving academically and socially.
Stressman said she is the product of a public school and recognizes the merits of public schools.
“But this is about choice and accessibility and what parents want for their kids,” she said.
The state spends billions on public education, but the money is used solely for one-size-fits-all public schools, Moore said.
“The money is already there,” Moore said. “It just needs to follow the child.”
Rep. Jene Vickrey, a Louisburg Republican, was one of the few lawmakers who attended the rally. He said doing what’s right for children should be the first focus of lawmakers.
“It is about opportunity,” Vickrey said. “It’s also about cooperation and helping all of our children find the opportunity that leads to success.”
In what may have been one of his final acts as Kansas Governor, Sam Brownback
addressed the audience a few hours before the U.S. Senate confirmed his nomination for a post in the Trump administration.
Brownback said choice is the building block of competition.
“We get better with competition,” Brownback said. “We compete at tiddlywinks. We compete in legislatures. We don’t just have one party–we have two. They compete with each other…With competition, you get a better education. That’s what we want. You need that and you deserve that.”