Published February 7th, 2023 at 9:56 AM
TOPEKA — A new education bill would funnel money into unregulated, unaccredited private schools, with lawmakers saying the legislation would protect parental authority.
The bill was promoted by lawmakers on the committee as a way for more Kansas students to access higher-quality education, but opponents say the bill is just the latest in a series of attempts to defund public schools.
House Bill 2218, which would become the “sunflower education equity act” if passed, was panned by education officials, including those from the Kansas National Association of Education, the Kansas Association of School Boards, public school officials and several Kansas State Board of Education members during a Monday hearing of the House K-12 Education Budget Committee.
The bill would allow parents to retrieve about $5,000 from a public school’s funding and apply the money to the costs of private school tuition or homeschooling.
Rep. Mari-Lynn Poskin, an Overland Park Democrat, was scolded for asking about the potential for triple-dipping. That’s because parents could participate in the new program as well as House Bill 2048, which would expand a tax credit that allows taxpayers to write off up to $500,000 worth of scholarships they provide for private schools.
Under HB 2218, parents could also receive money from other students by setting up their own unaccredited school.
“I would just have to say again, holy tax scams,” Poskin said, before getting cut off by Rep. Kristey Williams, an Augusta Republican and committee chairwoman, who said Poskin was politicizing the issue.
“We’re not going to do these holy-moly-like statements,” Williams said. “This is not a time to grandstand.”
Williams introduced HB 2218, which would establish education savings accounts for parents who don’t want their kids to attend public schools, along with a 10-member board to oversee operations. Under the bill, Kansas students eligible for public school enrollment at the elementary through high school level, or disabled children eligible for preschool programs, would qualify to have public school funding redirected into their education savings account.
Eligible schools for the program would be any nonpublic elementary or high school approved by the board, along with preschools serving students with disabilities. The bill stipulates that governmental agencies couldn’t control or supervise any of these schools or home schools.
The board would determine school qualification for the program, but the bill stipulates that schools would just need to provide full-time instruction in reading, grammar, mathematics, social studies and science to meet qualification standards, with certain exceptions.
No immediate family member could 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 savings account money for tuition expenses, uniforms, textbooks and 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.
Rep. Brad Boyd, D-Olathe, asked if there were limits to the religion stipulation.
“Am I to interpret that to mean that someone who’s teaching antisemitic, racist or Nazi materials can’t be factored into that decision?” Boyd said.
The bill revisor, who is responsible for drafting laws at a legislator’s request, said the nature of the material couldn’t be considered.
The board, which would have nine voting members, would provide oversight and management of the program and receive compensation.
The state treasurer would be one board member, serving as the committee chairperson. The other nine members would include either the chair of the House K-12 Education Budget Committee or the chair of the House Education Committee and the chair of the Senate Education Committee.
Republican and Democratic leaders in the Legislature would each appoint one member. The governor would be allowed to appoint a parent who has a student enrolled in the program to the board, and also would be allowed to appoint a representative for a qualified school. A representative from the state department of education would be a nonvoting member.
Board members appointed by the governor would only serve a term of one year, and board members appointed by minority leaders would serve an initial term of two years. Members appointed by the Senate president and House speaker would serve three years.
Board members would be compensated and given a subsistence allowance, mileage reimbursements and other benefits. The board members would determine which students qualify for funding.
Critics said the selection would skew the board by giving Republicans a majority of at least one vote and keeping GOP picks in place longer. They also pointed to an apparent conflict of interest in giving one of the seats to either the House K-12 Education Budget Committee chair, which would be Williams, or the House Education chair, which is Rep. Adam Thomas, R-Olathe, because both were involved with drafting the legislation that would put them in a position of power.
In a fiscal note, state budget director Adam Proffitt estimated that for every 484,000 public school students who participate in the program, the bill would require a total of $24,698,520 to be transferred from the state general fund into the savings account program.
The bill had 10 proponents and 15 opponents listed for the hearing. Williams gave the proponents three and a half minutes to speak and the opponents two and a half minutes.
John Walker, superintendent of Central Christian School in Hutchinson, said religious schools already have regulations in place.
“There is indeed accountability for small private schools through a nationally recognized accrediting body that keeps us accountable, ensures our viability, pushes us to excel academically, plant spiritual roots to ensure that there is no mission drift,” Walker said. “With accountability to the Lord, the board of trustees, parents and the accreditation agency, there are more than adequate controls that ensure schools provide a quality education for students and the families they deserve.”
Jim Karleskint, a former Republican state legislator who is now with the Unified School Administrators of Kansas, said he supported private and parochial schools but didn’t think it was right to use government money to fund them.
“In this bill, there’s little to no oversight on expenditures, little to no oversight for student achievement,” Karleskint said. “The bill can lead to unregulated schools, would allow (education savings accounts) to remain active for four years after graduation and would allow parents to double dip and, as we heard earlier, possibly triple. Other states that have adopted this type of legislation have numerous examples of fraud and misuse.”
Rep. Scott Hill, R-Abilene, said the bill was about constitutional rights, and that the Supreme Court and the U.S. Constitution said it was discriminatory to differentiate based on religion. He later said the bill was about education.
“We’re supporting education, not religion,” Hill said in defense of the bill, saying the founding fathers would have found the bill constitutional.
“When you teach catechism with taxpayer dollars, I think that’s supporting religion,” Karleskint said.
Rachel Mipro is a reporter with the Kansas Reflector, a nonprofit news operation covering Kansas state government and politics as part of States Newsroom. This story first appeared on the Reflector.