Senate Bill 61 and House Bill 2068 – identical bills that dramatically expand the state’s tuition tax credit voucher scheme – had hearings in the Senate Education Committee and the House K-12 Budget Committee this week.

Here is what the bills do:

These bills change the current program by allowing students from any public school to get a scholarship (voucher); currently only students in the 100 lowest performing elementary schools are eligible. Secondly, the bill expands eligibility from just free lunch eligible students to free and reduced lunch eligible students. 

As a result of these changes, private schools would be free to recruit and select high achieving, low-income students or exceptional student athletes from any K-12 public school in Kansas. This flips the legislative rationale behind the original formation of the program which was to provide opportunities for at-risk students in struggling schools. If this bill passes, that will no longer be the intent or the reality of the program.

Proponents of the bill were largely Catholic schools along with a couple of anti-public education think tanks and organizations and scholarship granting organizations which collect contributions and distribute the money. Opponents were advocates of public education including the Kansas State Board of Education, United School Administrators, the Kansas School Superintendents Association, Kansas Association of School Boards, Kansas NEA, and Schools for Quality Education. Also opposing the bill were parent organizations including the Kansas PTA, Stand Up Blue Valley, Education First Shawnee Mission, and Game On For Kansas Schools. School districts that submitted testimony in opposition were Shawnee Mission, Seaman, Blue Valley, Goddard, Olathe, Pittsburg, and Spring Hill.

Much of the discussion focused on two issues: accountability for student performance and admission of students to private schools.

Under the current program and unchanged by this bill is the fact that private schools receiving state-funded students are not required to participate in the state accreditation system. While Catholic schools in Kansas and some others do participate, it is not required and some private schools in the program do not report student achievement data. There is no requirement the private schools account for student learning in a way that is comparable to the public schools. In fact, there is no requirement the private schools report any student performance data – let alone track the performance of the voucher students.

While the schools testifying in committee asserted they would never discriminate in admissions, it was repeatedly pointed out that they can and they do. Private schools organized by a faith community can deny admission to students of other faiths, they can organize as single gender schools, they can require admissions tests, and they are under no obligation to accept or provide services to students with special needs. In asserting that public schools don’t serve all students, Sen. Renee Erickson (R-Wichita) said public schools don’t serve students who have been expelled from public schools. Ignored is the fact that expulsion from public schools is not done easily and requires extensive due process protections for the student. Later, Mike Wescott, executive director of Support for Catholic Schools (the scholarship granting organization for 44 schools in the Diocese of Wichita and Dodge City), told the committee that failing students would be “transitioned out to other schools.”

“There is always going to be a time, as they [students] maturate up to high school. And if they don’t start passing some classes, they are not going to graduate from our schools. Because we have a higher academic standard. So we have to transition kids to a different school because they are not going to meet the educational requirements. But that is their own choice, because of how they worked in the schools.”

Mike Wescott in oral testimony before the House K-12 Education Budget Committee

Most harsh in their condemnation of public schools and lavish praise of private schools were Rep. Brenda Landwehr (R-Wichita) and Rep. Sean Tarwater (R-Stilwell). And despite the fact that most of the opponent conferees spoke of their own success as products of Catholic schools or lauded Catholic schools as partners in their communities, Rep. Patrick Penn (R-Wichita) somehow found any opposition to be indicative of anti-Catholic bigotry!

No action was taken on either bill after the hearing but a vote might come as early as Monday of next week. Given the fact the House committee is stacked with representatives with a record of anti-public school bias, we would expect the bill to come out of committee.

Limiting cell phone usage in cars

The Senate Transportation Committee held a hearing on Senate Bill 25 which would prohibit the use of a hand held communication device (a cell phone in one’s hand) by any driver under the age of 18 and by any driver over 18 in a school zone or a construction zone. If the phone is connected through the car’s audio system via USB or Bluetooth, is on a speaker and sitting in the cup holder or somewhere else (not in the driver’s hand), it may be used.

Many questions were asked about the use of GPS when stuck in a construction zone and trying to find an alternative route or when sitting in a pick up line at a school and trying to let your child know where you are. There may need to be adjustments made to accommodate these situations. There is already a set of exceptions in the bill for contacting first responders and reporting other emergencies.

Is getting an occupational license an impediment to pursuing your chosen career?

The Senate Commerce Committee held a hearing on Senate Bill 10 which seeks to repeal as many licensing standards as possible and covers every single state license or certificate in Kansas except for the practice of law. While proponents kept the focus on low-wage jobs that have licensing or certificate requirements, it was not lost on the committee after the opponent testimony that the bill is overly broad. It would apply to licensing of pharmacists, health care professionals, architects, teachers and school administrators, law enforcement officers, and EMTs. Everyone except lawyers!

Committee chairman Rob Olson made it clear there needed to be a lot of thinking and changing before the bill would be ready for passage.

More guns on campus

The House Federal and State Affairs Committee held a hearing on House Bill 2059, a bill requiring Kansas to recognize all concealed carry licenses from other states even if those state requirements are less stringent that the Kansas requirements. The bill goes further, however, in that it creates a new tier of concealed carry licenses for individuals from age 18 through 20. These young people are prohibited from buying a handgun but would be allowed to carry one. And more alarmingly, given the legislature stripped colleges and universities of the ability to restrict the carrying of guns on campus, passage of this bill would open campuses in Kansas to all students to carry guns on campus. (Okay, there might be a few 17-year-olds on campus but they’ll be 18 before their freshman year is up.)

There was also a hearing on House Bill 2058 which only addresses the reciprocity issue. There is an option for gun advocates who want to recognize all permits but might actually hesitate about allowing all college students to carry guns on campus.