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Kansas lawmakers strike several provisions from controversial private school funding program

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Kansas lawmakers strike several provisions from controversial private school funding program

Mar 27, 2023 | 6:32 pm ET
By Rachel Mipro
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Kansas lawmakers strike several provisions from controversial private school funding program
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Rep. Kristey Williams discusses proposed legislation changes during a March 27, 2023 conference meeting. (Rachel Mipro/Kansas Reflector)

TOPEKA — In the first of what is likely to be a series of bill negotiations over the next few days, a Kansas senator proposed cutting provisions on teacher salaries and district funding from a controversial, voucher-like K-12 education proposal. 

Members of House and Senate education committees met Monday to hammer out a version of the Sunshine Education Equity Act acceptable to both chambers of the Legislature. Earlier this month, the bill cleared the House 64-61, following pressure from GOP leaders. 

Under the legislation as it stands, the program would use state money to fund unregulated private schools starting in the 2023-2024 school year. Each eligible student could draw a maximum of $5,000 annually from the state treasury to attend private school. Any nonpublic preschool, elementary or high school that teaches reading, grammar, mathematics, social studies and science would be eligible to benefit financially from the proposed law. 

Such schools wouldn’t be subject to government oversight, and state funding could be used to buy religious objects such as bibles, if used in the school’s curriculum. 

House K-12 Education Budget Committee chair Rep. Kristey Williams, an Augusta Republican is the driving force behind the bill and has said the legislation would allow parents to give their children a “spiritual perspective.” While defending the bill to constituents in her hometown, Williams said many people had a “God-sized hole” in their hearts

The measure would also appropriate $592.7 million for special education programs in fiscal year 2024 and mandate that school districts increase teacher salaries. 

Critics of the bill have said these provisions were blended into the bill to garner more support. Since the teacher salary increases would come from school districts, and not from the state, some have also expressed concern that the pay bumps would cause districts financial hardship.  

Sen. Molly Baumgardner, a Louisburg Republican, said she wanted to strike the teacher salary increase, along with a section of the bill that would allow the smallest school districts to use their highest enrollment numbers from the past four school years to determine funding.  

Under state school finance law, district financial aid is determined by a base amount multiplied by full-time student enrollment. Local funding is subtracted from this total, and the state makes up the difference. 

Baumgardner expressed concern that some school districts would try to use this section of the bill to gain more funding, though she didn’t give any specific examples of districts doing so using this method. Baumgardner added that she and fellow lawmakers had also been working to push forward legislation to prevent school districts from shutting down buildings, driving students elsewhere while keeping the funding. 

She gave a theoretical example of the administrative thought process she was hoping to avoid: “‘You know what, if we just shut this building down, then that community is going to need to find someplace else to tether to for a new district and we’ll not only be whole, we’ll be better off, because we’ll have more money and one less building and fewer faculty we’re needing to pay for,’” Baumgardner said.

Williams offered her approval of these changes. 

“I would hate to think any of our districts would try to game our formula,” Williams said. 

The committee lawmakers plan to hold several more meetings on the bill throughout the early part of the week to cover further bill changes.