Senate advances voucher scheme to give private schools permission to recruit the best students and athletes out of neighborhood public schools

On a vote of 23 to 14, the Kansas Senate has approved Senate Bill 61, a bill expanding the current tuition tax credit voucher program and finally ending any pretense of the program having been enacted to help struggling students. In order to get the program enacted some five years ago, voucher proponents argued that it was needed to help at-risk students escape “failing schools.” But each year, conservative anti-public education legislators have come back to whittle away at that idea. Senate Bill 61 gets them pretty much what they wanted – a program to encourage private schools – including unaccredited private schools – to recruit low-income students who happen to be either high performing academically or talented athletes. As Senator John Doll (R-Garden City) said repeatedly on the Senate floor, “My private school coaching friends are going to love this.”

The program which once required eligible students to be at-risk eliminates that requirement. Eligibility is based solely on whether or not the student is in the free or reduced lunch program.

The program which once required that eligible students had to be in the 100 lowest-performing elementary schools, no longer does. A student can be plucked from any public K-12 school.

Schools do not have to be state accredited and, while the Kansas State Department of Education is required to prepare a report on the success of the voucher students, there is no requirement that the private schools provide any assessment data on the students.

Proponents of the bill argued that no money was taken away from public schools for this program. That is technically true, but what the program does is provide $10 million in tax credits for donors to “scholarship granting organizations.” A corporation or wealthy individual can contribute up to $500,000 in a year and the state will grant that corporation or individual a 70% tax credit. What that means is that $350,000 of that $500,000 is knocked off the tax liability of the donor. To make things worse, if the donor owes less than $350,000 in taxes, the remainder can be carried into the future and used against later tax liability.

If maxed out, the state would be cutting taxes on these donors by $10 million per year. That’s $10 million that is no longer available to pay for highway projects, higher education, public safety, foster care programs, care for the elderly or disabled, or K-12 education. Alternatively, the legislature could raise taxes on the folks who can’t afford to make these big donations. Once again, low-income and middle-class Kansans will pay for a tax cut for the wealthy.

Voting NO on the bill were Democrats Ethan Corson, Oletha Faust-Goudeau, Marci Francisco, Tom Hawk, Tom Holland, Cindy Holscher, Pat Pettey, Jeff Pittman, Dinah Sykes, and Mary Ware and Republicans John Doll, Brenda Dietrich, Jeff Longbine, and Carolyn McGinn. Not voting were Republican Rick Billinger and Democrat David Haley. Republican Bud Estes was absent. All other Republicans voted YES.

Vouchers in the Kansas House

A bill identical to SB 61, HB 2068, has passed out of the Kansas House K-12 Education Budget Committee and awaits debate in the full House.

The House K-12 Education Budget Committee has also passed out HB 2119, an even more disturbing voucher bill, but with significant amendments. The amendments would appear to remove some of the most egregious provisions. We will be doing an analysis of the amended bill and will report on what exactly it does in a later post.

TAKE ACTION NOW: Voucher-pushers in both the House and Senate are determined to gift taxpayer dollars to unaccountable private and for-profit schools. CLICK HERE to find your representative and CALL them. Educate them on what these voucher schemes actually do and urge them to oppose the effort to build a system where taxpayers fund private schools that are free to discriminate and choose who they will and will not accept. Instead, urge them to put the same effort into strengthening our neighborhood schools and address issues of inequality and poverty that put children at risk.

Debate on the Civics Test bill

The Kansas House Education Committee took up House Bill 2039, Rep. Steve Huebert’s (R-Valley Center) mandatory high stakes civics test bill. The bill would require that every student in Kansas pass a so-called civics assessment prior to graduation. We’re not sure what this test might look like but Huebert keeps referring to the test given to immigrants seeking citizenship.

HB 2039 was opposed by the Kansas State Board of Education, the Kansas Association of School Boards, United School Administrators/Kansas, Kansas NEA and a number of school districts. One objection is that decisions about curriculum and assessments are the responsibility of the state board of education members, not legislators. It seems clear that usurping the state board of education flies in the face of the very kind of government overreach that ideologues like Huebert purport to dislike.

In its testimony, KNEA pointed out that every Kansas high school student now has to successfully pass a course in government to graduate and that government teachers, who are well-steeped in the state standards, provide multiple assessments during the semester in order to determine if the students are meeting those standards. Fail those assessments? You fail the class. Fail the class? You don’t graduate until you pass it. We don’t need to take the citizenship test in place of what is already happening.

Huebert worked to force his bill through the committee by assuring the members that he would have a balloon amendment when it hit the floor that would “make everyone happy”; he even spoke of passing the bill unanimously. Unfortunately, he did not have any amendment to offer while working the bill and he gave no hint as to what the amendment might be.

When committee members asked why the rush, why not wait a few days to get the amendment together, Huebert argued that this was urgent because the Legislature might shut down due to COVID at any time. Questions arose about the cost of the bill (the fiscal note says it will minimally cost $400,000 per year), the quality of the citizenship test, how high stakes tests work, and more. As the meeting went on, it became clear that Huebert did not have the full support of the majority of the committee. Rep. Adam Thomas, who had offered a motion to pass the bill out of committee favorable for passage, offered a substitute motion to pass it out without recommendation. Essentially this sends the message that the committee was too divided to agree on the bill. That motion passed. Now we wait for Rep. Huebert’s balloon amendment and perhaps some insight into how this so-called fiscal conservative intends to pay for the cost of a high-stakes test that appears to duplicate the intent of standards already required for students.

New bill on financial literacy instruction

Another bill has been introduced in the House Education Committee that seeks to usurp the authority of the Kansas State Board of Education who are elected by the citizens of Kansas to act upon issues of curriculum in our schools.

House Bill 2301 deals with providing a course of instruction in personal financial literacy in Kansas high schools. Such a bill has been a perennial issue in the statehouse but this one is a little bit different than past efforts which mandated taking and passing a financial literacy course as a graduation requirement. HB 2301 does not mandate that every student take and pass the course. Instead, it requires that if a school district offers such a course, the course shall count as 1/2 of a math credit towards graduation. It also mandates that all state post-secondary education institutions recognize the financial literacy course and 1/2 of a math credit for admissions purposes.

The bill directs the state board of education members to develop state curriculum standards for personal financial literacy for grades 11 and 12 for a one semester course. These standards are to include, but not be limited to: (1) saving and investing, including, but not limited to, understanding investments, wealth building and college savings; (2) credit and debt, including, but not limited to, topics concerning the dangers of excessive debt, consumer awareness, credit bureaus, payday and car title loans and collection practices; (3) financial responsibility and money management, including, but not limited to, topics concerning budgeting and negotiating techniques; and (4) insurance, risk management and income, including, but not limited to, topics concerning insurance coverage, taxes, real estate rent or purchase options, mortgages and automobile and personal loans. 

Financial literacy is a very important skill and many people think such instruction is needed. But sadly what the bill does not do is provide for a living wage for all Kansas workers, reign in predatory credit practices like unsolicited pre-approved credit card applications, fund post-secondary education at a level that reduces or eliminates student debt, expand Medicaid so that low-income workers won’t be bankrupted by medical debt, or regulate payday and title loan businesses that often charge interest rates in excess of 100%. Instead, it expects our high schools to teach kids to stay away from the predators that the legislature allows to thrive.