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Kansas House narrowly approves education proposal to fund unregulated private schools


Kansas House narrowly approves education proposal to fund unregulated private schools

Mar 15, 2023 | 2:13 pm ET
By Rachel Mipro Tim Carpenter
Kansas House narrowly approves education proposal to fund unregulated private schools
Speaker of the House Rep. Dan Hawkins rallied Republican representatives to vote in favor of a controverisal education proposal during a House meeting. (Rachel Mipro/Kansas Reflector)

TOPEKA — The Kansas House passed a wide-ranging bill funneling state funding to unregulated private schools after holdups due to bipartisan concern about the proposal’s effects.

The vote was initially divided, 60 for and 64 against, with Republicans breaking rank to vote with the 40-member Democratic bloc during the Wednesday House meeting. One Democrat voted in favor of the program. Following the first vote, leaders issued a call of the House, locking the doors and calling up members to see whether members would change their votes.

Rep.  Kenneth Collins, a Mulberry Republican, changed his vote fairly quickly. After about an hour’s delay, Reps. Samantha Poetter-Parshall and Robyn Essex switched their votes and Rep. Bill Sutton returned to the House to vote, making the final vote 64 for and 61 against.

“I do not trust a government that destroys an institution and creates havoc, then looks for for more victims under the guise of fixing the problem they caused,” said Rep. Trevor Jacobs, a Fort Scott Republican and one of the “no” votes. “In this bill, the government holds the purse strings, not the parent.”

Hours after the House passed the bill, Senate Democrats made a procedural motion to try to force an immediate vote on the bill and — if it failed to receive majority approval — kill it. Republicans avoided the vote by abruptly adjourning instead. The legislation is likely heading to a conference committee, where three House and three Senate members will try to reach a compromise.

The proposal, known as the Sunflower Education Equity Act, has been revised several times since the beginning of the legislative session. 

In its current form, the education proposal is bundled with funding provisions that would set aside $592.7 million from the State General Fund for special education in fiscal year 2024, as well as create a special education task force and increase teacher salaries.

Gov. Laura Kelly said after speaking at a rally at the Capitol in support of Medicaid expansion that she didn’t appreciate blending the controversial voucher-like measure with earmarks for special education and teacher salaries. She also suggested GOP House leadership’s arm twisting placed some of their colleagues in a difficult political position.

“I don’t react really well to game-playing, bribery,” the Democratic governor said. “It’s just really, really unfortunate that there are those in the Legislature who believe that playing those kinds of games is a good idea. They put their own legislative colleagues in a horrible position today. I think they will live to regret it.” 

Rep. Kristey Williams, the driving force behind the education bill, counts votes during a Wednesday House meeting. (Rachel Mipro/Kansas Reflector)
Rep. Kristey Williams, the driving force behind the education bill, counts votes during a Wednesday House session. (Rachel Mipro/Kansas Reflector)

But critics of the bill have taken issue with the Sunflower Education Equity Act portion, which would use state money to fund unregulated private schools not subject to government oversight.

The proposal legislation specifies that government agencies couldn’t control or supervise any of these schools or home schools. Immediate family members couldn’t charge or collect payment for tuition for students, but parents would be able to charge tuition and collect fees for schools they operated, including home schools, as long as their own child isn’t a student.

Parents could use the account money for tuition expenses, uniforms, textbooks or other items. The bill stipulates that the context or religious nature of a product or service wouldn’t be considered when determining payment, meaning state dollars could be used to purchase Bibles and religious objects.

The state would begin making payments to private school students in the 2023 to 2024 school year, creating special savings accounts monitored by the state treasurer. Each eligible private school recipient could draw $5,000 annually from the state.

Any nonpublic preschool, elementary, or high school that teaches reading, grammar, mathematics, social studies and science would be eligible for the program, if approved by program regulators. 

In the first phase implementation of the program, eligibility would be limited to students attending or eligible to attend preschool and those who were enrolled and attending public school in grades K-12 during the previous school year. 

Eligible students in this age range would include those who qualify for the national free or reduced lunch program or scored very low on state assessments for  language arts or mathematics. The program would be opened for all K-12 students if fewer than 2,000 eligible students enrolled in the program during the first phase. 

The fiscal effect of the program is unknown, leading to concerns about the long-term financial impact the program will have statewide. 

“Public dollars belong in public schools,” Rep. Vic Miller, a Topeka Democrat, said in a statement with other opponents of the proposal.

In an joint issued statement, Kansas House Republican leaders Dan Hawkins, Chris Croft, Blake Carpenter and Kristey Williams said the bill would help improve education statewide and address a widespread teacher shortage.

“The Sunflower Education Equity Act is a broad legislative compromise which includes critical policy requests from both political parties,” the statement read. “This important middle ground truly embodies a good faith effort to listen to both sides and meet in the middle for the kids, teachers, and schools in our state.”