Kansas House Passes School Choice Bill,Ties it to Special-Ed Funding and Teacher Pay

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During a House hearing on the bill, Republican Rep. Kristey Williams pointed to declining test scores among low-income students and said families need alternatives to public schools.

WICHITA, Kansas — The Kansas House narrowly passed a bill Wednesday that would raise teacher pay and increase funding for special education while also establishing a far-reaching school choice program.

The vote sets up a potential quandary for Democratic Gov. Laura Kelly, who supports additional funding for special-ed but opposes voucher-type programs that fund private schools with state dollars.

The Kansas House voted 64-61 to approve its substitute for Senate Bill 83, which now heads back to the Senate. The education savings account measure would give qualifying families about $5,000 of tax money to use toward the cost of private school tuition or homeschooling.

Supporters of education savings accounts, which have passed in several other states, say the programs give more families an alternative to public schools.

Opponents — including public school superintendents, teachers unions and the Kansas State Board of Education — say they’re an attempt to defund and undermine public schools. They say there’s no evidence that voucher programs work or that students do better academically in private schools.

The original Senate bill, which narrowly passed, featured an expansion of the state’s tax credit scholarship program. That bill was gutted in a House committee in favor of the much broader and more wide-ranging education savings accounts.

It’s unclear what the education savings accounts would cost the state, but initial estimates put the price tag at about $151 million a year.

During a House hearing on the bill, Augusta Republican Rep. Kristey Williams, a longtime proponent of school choice measures, pointed to sharp declines in state test scores among low-income students and said families need alternatives to public schools.

“Plummeting student outcomes cannot be answered with simply adding more money or more time,” Williams said. Education savings accounts “are like an educational tool box: Once you open this box, you’ll find opportunities of innovation, inspiration and even healthy competition that would never be realized if we maintain the status quo.”

Williams said free-market competition would lead to better outcomes for Kansas students, including in rural parts of the state. She said people in areas without private schools could “begin a micro-school, a learning pod, a small classroom like the days before in the 1800s.”

Democratic Rep. Jerry Stogsdill of Johnson County pressed Williams on that idea:

“So you are suggesting that we return to one-room schoolhouses?” he said.

“I’m suggesting education freedom — allowing parents to provide the best type of education that fits the needs of the child,” she said. “And it is not always a traditional school.”

“What degrees or credentials would these teachers have to have? … Are you saying they don’t need anything?” Stogsdill said.

“When parents have access to just a little bit of money, they can make the best choices for their students,” Williams answered. “Whether or not they have a license is probably not relevant to whether or not they are a good teacher for their child.”

Wednesday’s vote came after an hour-long “call of the House,” a political maneuver during which doors to the chamber are closed and House leaders lobby representatives to change their votes. Three Republicans — Rep. Ken Collins of Mulberry, Rep. Samantha Poetter Parshall of Paola and Rep. Robyn Essex of Olathe — changed their “no” votes to “yes.” The final vote was well short of the two-thirds majority needed to override a veto.

In a statement after the vote, Republican House leaders issued a joint statement calling the bill a “legislative compromise which includes critical policy requests from both political parties.”

Democrats say the bill, which remains heavily criticized by public school advocates, was not improved by adding special-ed funding or teacher raises.

“We’re holding instructors’ salary as ransom to get this bill approved,” said Rep. Kirk Haskins of Topeka. “If this bill was so great, why do we have to threaten the livelihoods of our teachers?”

Democratic Rep. Dan Osman called it unnecessary and unprecedented.

“No other time but in education do we say, ‘We’re going to carve out the money. You don’t need to give it to the public institution that we all use. We’re going to give it to a private institution,’” he said. “It is a Pandora’s box that when we open it, it’s going to spread demons across the entire land, and we cannot close that box back up.”

Suzanne Perez reports on education for KMUW in Wichita and the Kansas News Service. You can follow her on Twitter @SuzPerezICT.

The Kansas News Service is a collaboration of KMUW, KCUR, Kansas Public Radio and High Plains Public Radio focused on health, the social determinants of health and their connection to public policy.

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