Spoiled for choice? Controversy rises over effort to expand key Kansas school choice program

Andrew Bahl Rafael Garcia
Topeka Capital-Journal
Beneath a school mural of the Last Supper, Manhattan Catholic Schools classroom spelling bee winners wait their turn to compete in the socially distanced schoolwide spelling bee Wednesday.

MANHATTAN — Every spring, the Manhattan Catholic Schools principal — Mike Hubka this spring in his first year on the job — sits down with the school's administrative staff to figure out what it will take to keep the school going for another year.

It is a process much like what Kansas' public schools go through in the spring to get their school boards' approval in the summer — estimate the number of students and services needed and come up with a budget to pay for it. 

But while public schools calculate much of their budgets on the state's funding per student (known as base aid per pupil), federal aid and a limited amount of local tax revenue, some private schools like Hubka's do those calculations essentially in reverse and set their tuition rates on the budgets they anticipate needing.

Even though private schools try to keep cost of attendance low, Hubka says, tuition is likely the biggest factor in a family's decision to send their students to private schools or not, and it is a factor he believes could be lessened if the Kansas Legislature expands a tuition voucher program for the state's private schools.

"I don’t know of too many free-to-the-public private schools," he said. "If it’s less of an economic decision for families, it could have an impact, not just for Catholic schools but any private schools."

School choice advocates in the Legislature have long eyed changes to the program. But things are different this year, and a ruling from the U.S. Supreme Court and the COVID-19 pandemic have prompted a full-court press to expand the state's choice offerings more broadly.

Instead of the state directly funding a student’s tuition, the program instead offers private businesses a tax credit for donations to scholarship-granting organizations that bankroll scholarships of up to $8,000 at private schools. Individuals and businesses can in turn deduct 70% of their gift from their tax liability.

Currently, only students attending the 100 lowest-performing elementary schools in Kansas are eligible and a child must also have a family income below a certain threshold to qualify.

Critics worry that any changes to the program could pull away resources from public schools, arguing that there is no guarantee the grass will be greener for a student in a private institution.

Proponents argue, however, that it has worked well in Kansas and want to expand it to include every school in the state.

“I'm not so much concerned with where a child gets educated, just that they get educated,” Rep. Brenda Landwehr, R-Wichita, who is authoring the legislation, said in an interview.

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Pandemic emboldens choice advocates

School choice advocates believe the pandemic has done even more to strengthen the case for expansion in Kansas.

As the debate has raged over whether public school students should be taking classes in person, Landwehr said that many have been looking for another option, and that has made private schools more attractive — if families can pay.

In Manhattan, tuition rates vary and can range from $3,300 to $4,400, depending on whether a student is Catholic. At Bishop Miege High School in Johnson County, fees can run upwards of $11,900 per student.

"What happens to all these other families who can't afford that?" Landwehr said. "They can't afford to have a babysitter, they are both working parents. What do they do?"

Manhattan Catholic Schools has stayed open for in-person instruction all five days a week. Hubka, the principal, said some families and teachers left over health concerns, but that loss in enrollment was more or less canceled out by public-school families who came to the private school seeking an in-person alternative to the area district's hybrid approach. 

And even though the public school district has since moved to five-day-a-week learning for the spring, Hubka said Manhattan Catholic Schools is still fielding calls from parents interested in the private school, even from some non-Catholic families.

Most are put on a waiting list, since Hubka said the school has had to balance expanding the student body with limited physical space because of the school's social distancing protocols.

Opposite a mural of the Last Supper, stained glass windows rim the cafeteria and gym space Wednesday at Manhattan Catholic Schools.

The school, which runs from preschool to eighth grade, prides itself in graduating well-prepared students into the public Manhattan High School, where those students often become class presidents, National Merit Scholars and student leaders.

It is that kind of success, in addition to faith-based learning, that attracts families to private schools like Manhattan Catholic Schools, Hubka said.

Expanding the tax-credit program is already a long-overdue move, advocates say, as it would lead more families to schools like Manhattan Catholic.

Over 600 students are currently in the program but thousands more would become eligible under the proposed legislation. The hit to the state is capped at $10 million, but only about $2.5 million in tax credits are currently used.

Libby Knox, director of development for the Catholic Education Foundation, a scholarship granting organization based in Kansas City, Kan., said that, under current rules, a student on one side of a street could be eligible for the program while their neighbors who go to a different school aren't.

"One family can get access to the program and the other doesn't," Knox said in an interview. "We have seen a number of those situations, and I believe there are potentially thousands of those across Kansas."

Public schools fear ‘two-tier’ system

Those aligned with traditional public schools fear that choice expansion could divert money available to them, whether directly or indirectly.

No state money is directly spent on the tax credit program. Instead, the money is effectively lost tax revenue for the state's general fund.

But public schools are worried that less money in the state's coffers could hurt them, especially after years of court battles over the appropriate funding for education in Kansas.

Advocates for public schools also question the premise that private institutions are automatically a better option.

"There isn't a lot of evidence that private schools are outperforming their public counterparts, especially when considering socio-economic status," Richard Proffitt, superintendent of Pittsburg Community Unified School District 250, told the Senate Education Committee on Tuesday.

Public schools also argue that they are forced to adhere to stricter requirements about reporting data to the state. Private institutions say they are already bound to do this, but opponents counter that reporting is voluntary and have pushed the bill to be amended to strengthen the mandate.

Because private schools have the ability to choose which students to admit, public schools say true choice is difficult to come by.

Mark Tallman, a lobbyist for the Kansas Association of School Boards, said this could open up a bigger can of worms where high-achieving students with savvy parents can leave public schools while students with special needs or those who are lower performing can't.

Sitting at separated tables, the student winners of each Manhattan Catholic Schools classroom's spelling bee wait their turn at the schoolwide spelling bee Wednesday.

"The most challenging students, the discipline problems ... are not likely to take advantage of a program like this," Tallman said during a hearing Tuesday. "But someone is going to have to educate those students. And the fundamental concern is that we don't want to develop a two-tier education system."

On the other hand, some private schools work with their local districts to provide some special education services or even transportation for private school students, as is the case at Manhattan Catholic Schools. The public schools are then reimbursed by the state or by the private schools for those services.

And while most families at Kansas's predominantly faith-based private schools might be drawn to them for their faith-based approach, Hubka said some families that aren't religious look to the schools as simply an alternative to the public education system. He said it is a misconception that private schools routinely turn people away or pick and choose their students.

"When people are paying tuition, and that tuition is paying for and funding your teachers and school, you don’t turn people away," he said.

Still, there have been some instances of Kansas faith-based schools denying admission to students for religious reasons, and some families that aren't religious may not seek private schooling in the first place. In 2019, St. Ann Catholic School in Prairie Village denied admission to a kindergarten student because the student's parents are a same-sex couple.

There are also concerns as to whether an expanded program could create administrative burdens for private schools that are already trying to keep the lights on in the wake of the pandemic.

Leo Pauls, former public policy director for the Kansas Association of Religious and Independent Schools, said he consults with needs to raise $5 million by the end of the year and that expanding the program could distract from making ends meet.

"I frankly would be concerned whether this would be the right time to expand," he said in an interview.

Hubka also said he and other private school administrators may be leery of any potential expansion, given the fact that legislators could decide to attach spending stipulations to an expanded voucher program.

Manhattan Catholic Schools principal Mike Hubka greets students as they arrive at the school Wednesday.

Schools seek to avoid zero-sum game

Both public and private schools say they want to keep things cooperative and insist there is no desire to create a zero-sum game in Kansas education.

But heated debate over school choice has often centered on whether private schools, which are overwhelmingly affiliated with religious institutions in Kansas, are being targeted because of their faith-based roots.

"I thought we moved on from all the anti-Catholic bigotry," said Rep. Patrick Penn, R-Wichita.

This debate is likely to only intensify. Legislators are weighing whether to explore more aggressive forms of school choice, such as a voucher program for certain students.

Fifteen states and Washington, D.C., have some form of voucher system, in which per-pupil aid is directly routed to support students enrolling in private schools. Voucher bills have not gained traction in the legislature before but the pandemic could change things.

"As COVID-19 has pointed out, the model of one-size-fits-all no longer is working and we have to be open to innovative ways (of doing things)," said Sen. Renee Erickson, R-Wichita.

Having split a 40-year career between public and private schools in Kansas, Hubka said he saw both sides of the school choice issue. He said schools, public and private, focus not only on teaching academic skills but social skills like "loving your neighbor," which do take on a religious component at faith-based schools but apply in secular life as well.

He said the issue came down to allowing families access to the best opportunities for their children, regardless of their financial circumstances.

"People want opportunities to do what’s best for their kids," Hubka said. "That’s a big part of the American dream, to make sure your kids are better off than you."