GOP split dooms scaled-back Kansas 'school choice' plan

TOPEKA, Kan. (AP) — Republican lawmakers in Kansas who say parents need alternatives to public schools couldn't pass even a scaled-back version of the “school choice” plans enacted in other states with GOP-controlled Legislatures.

Democratic Gov. Laura Kelly strongly opposed using state tax dollars to help parents pay for private or home schooling, and GOP conservatives had trouble winning over rural Republicans who didn't think families living in areas with few private schools would receive much of a benefit.

That meant as Republican leaders pondered a final push Friday on the last day of the Legislature’s annual session, supporters never seemed likely to get the two-thirds majorities needed to override Kelly's expected veto. GOP leaders instead dropped plans to consider the bill shortly before gaveling out for the year.

The bill would have created a program to help families with low or modest incomes pay for private or home schooling. It was targeted at the 10 most populous counties and would have given those parents $4,848 for the upcoming school year, with the amount rising in the future.

The struggles of advocates for such programs in Kansas contrast sharply with their successes in Iowa and Utah, where GOP lawmakers approved statewide programs in January and saw GOP governors sign them. But Kansas voters narrowly reelected Kelly in November.

“Iowa families knew this was coming because the governor that they elected campaigned on this,” said Senate Education Committee Chair Molly Baumgardner, a Kansas City-area Republican. “The state of Kansas is very different because we don’t have a governor that campaigned on that.”

Lawmakers did approve a bill providing $6.3 billion for K-12 public schools, the bulk of their operating funds for the 2023-24 school year, including an expansion of an existing program that gives income tax credits to donors to funds offering private school scholarships to low-income students. Total credits would remain capped at $10 million a year.

The votes Friday were 87-37 in the House and 23-16 in the Senate, sending the measure to Kelly. Public education groups have urged a veto, arguing in part that it does not sufficiently fund special education. A veto would likely force the governor to call a special session to ensure that schools could operate for a full year.

Supporters of using state funds for school choice argue that it would benefit students who struggle in public schools, and they also contend that competition would force those schools to improve. Pandemic-era school closures and battles over curriculum — particularly on race and gender — have further fueled GOP interest.

“Every child in the state of Kansas should have an opportunity for success, and if they’re not succeeding in our public schools, we need to provide them an opportunity somewhere, somehow,” said Rep. Kristey Williams, a Wichita-area Republican, who chairs a House committee on K-12 spending.

But Democrats and moderates, along with teachers and administrators, fear such programs would siphon money from public schools because their state funding is tied to enrollment. Some rural Republicans were also skeptical because of their concerns over the lack of private schools in their areas.

This week Kelly attended a Statehouse news conference held by a dozen former state teachers of the year who oppose the use of tax dollars to pay for private or home schooling. Later, speaking from the podium, Kelly said the state needs to be fully funding its public schools instead of “diverting public funds to private schools.”

“This is the foundation of our state,” Kelly said, with the teachers standing behind her. “Without the work that these people do in our school buildings, there would be no Kansas. We would have no work force.”

Tracy Taylor Callard, a Wichita educator and the 2002 teacher of the year, said public schools allow children of different backgrounds and from different neighborhoods to interact.

“We all know that public schools are under attack,” she said at the same event.

The school choice proposal — derided as a voucher plan by critics — would have piggybacked onto a program created by Kelly.

That program, funded through U.S. government coronavirus relief, provides $1,000 a year to low-income parents of public school students to help them cover education expenses.

The $4,848 payments envisioned under the GOP proposal would have been available to families with a household income of 250% or less of the U.S. poverty level, or $75,000 for a family of four.

The measure would have been doomed by Kelly's expected veto. Electing a GOP governor would have made the difference, said Senate President Ty Masterson, another Wichita-area Republican.

“I think of all the things that would have gone with just simple majorities,” Masterson said. ___

Follow John Hanna on Twitter: https://www.twitter.com/apjdhanna