OPINION

Kansas legislators compromised in negotiating omnibus education bill and more controversial school issues

By Sharon Hartin Iorio
Special to Gannett Kansas
Sharon Hartin Iorio

On May 7, the atmosphere at the Kansas Statehouse felt like one of those unforeseen pivotal moments — where things fraught with controversy just seem to come together. It happened through a surprisingly broad collaboration on education policy and finance.

After months of argumentative debate supported by well-funded special interest groups, less well-funded teacher and administrative groups and a range of individuals, compromise descended upon legislators.

Major provisions of an omnibus education bill were negotiated. The bill’s final language has not been made public; however, because of its large size and scope, opportunities for further debate and scrutiny likely will be limited. But, it’s possible for last-minute changes to be made at the Legislature’s final session in late May.

Beyond a commitment to fund the Kansas Supreme Court ruling in the Gannon school finance case, the Legislature compromised on other controversial issues.

Tax-credit funded scholarships for qualified high-risk students to attend private schools will be expanded from those who are recipients of free lunches at the 100 lowest performing schools to those receiving both free or reduced price lunches at any K-8 school. But the compromise bill doesn’t raise the $10 million cap on tax credit donations that fund the program thus holding administrative costs to that of past years.

This compromise also capped donations qualifying for the 70% state tax credit, which opponents have cited as benefiting the super-rich more than the average taxpayer and reducing tax dollars otherwise going to the general fund.

Education Savings Accounts, a provision that passed the House but failed in the Senate was deleted from the compromise bill. The original bill would have allowed state tax dollars of approximately $4,500 per year (the base per pupil funding) for high-poverty, underachieving students to be used by families of qualifying students for private school tuition and other educational needs, such as transportation to a private school.

The ESA attempt was, by-far, the most antagonistic and fundamental of the policy battles. Libertarians supported the bill as limiting a “nonessential” government function. For-profit private schools view it as an enrollment builder, religious schools as mission-driven opportunity or, for some, financial survival and far-right conservatives as an opening for shaping students’ values.

Republican fiscal conservatives and moderates, teachers and administrators, Democrats and some Independents see ESAs as a first step toward defunding public schools.

The bill’s opponents believe that all Kansans — those with school-aged children and those without — pay taxes to support the American ideal of individuals’ and national advancement through public education. Thus, permitting parents to direct state funding to private schools without consistent, timely financial oversight and minimal requirements for teachers to be college educated and vetted by state and federal background checks would be allowing tax dollars to follow students into jeopardy.

Sending tax dollars to selective-admission private schools will be a “hard sell” to Kansans. Only five states offer ESAs and three of those limit them to students with disabilities.

Eliminating ESAs from the education bill was less of a compromise than a strategic withdrawal. Its proponents promise they will advance ESAs again.

Skeptics say the compromise bill could not have happened without a Democrat governor’s veto power or that legislators were driven by end-of-session pressures.

I believe the governor and legislators did their best for Kansas without abandoning their beliefs and this is a hopeful sign for the future.

Sharon Hartin Iorio is professor and dean emeritas of the Wichita State University College of Education. Reach her at Sharon.iorio@gmail.com.