KS Lawmakers Plan to Use COVID Funds to Expand Vouchers to Public School Kids

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TOPEKA — A novel iteration of the contentious Kansas voucher program for private schools aims to finance the initiative using federal COVID-19 funds and provide $1,000 to public school students.

Senator Molly Baumgardner, a Republican from Louisburg, stated that the revised legislation is intended to strengthen public education and assist families in meeting their children’s educational needs.

Baumgardner said, "This will enable lower-income families to ensure that their children have access to opportunities."

The revised legislation, which is subject to further amendments throughout the week, eliminates the Sunflower Education Equity Act and instead establishes the "education enrichment program." Under this proposal, a portion of the state’s $50 million in federal COVID-19 recovery funds will be utilized to provide awards and grants.

Public school students would receive $1,000 through this program. Students not enrolled in public schools would receive the equivalent of 95% of base state aid, which amounts to approximately $5,000. The funds could be used for activities such as academic camps, music lessons, and tutoring services.

Representative Valendia Winn, a Democrat from Kansas City, commented on the $4,000 disparity in funding between private and public school students. Winn deemed the removal of the word "equity" from the proposal title as a positive decision.

Winn stated, "You took the word ‘equity’ out. Good thinking."

The legislation still allocates $592.7 million for special education programs in fiscal year 2024, commencing in July, and establishes a special education task force. An amendment proposed on Tuesday afternoon suggests that some of the special education funding be partially covered by the American Rescue Plan Act. Approximately $47 million from the Kansas Education Enrichment Program and $25 million from the legislature employment security fund would be reallocated to achieve the $72 million in ARPA funding.

Baumgardner explained, "It’s using federal funds to make up for the lack of support for special education from the federal government."

These changes were proposed during several meetings on Tuesday among four Republicans and two Democrats from the House and Senate education committees.

Representative Kristey Williams, a Republican from Augusta and chair of the House K-12 Education Budget Committee, approved the changes on behalf of the House committee members.

Williams stated, "That’s a significant compromise for the House, but I believe it is a constructive response, and the House will accept it."

The original bill faced heavy criticism from education officials, teachers, and concerned citizens as it planned to utilize state funds to support unregulated private schools starting in the 2023-2024 school year. Eligible students would be able to receive a maximum of $5,000 annually from the state treasury to attend private schools.

Any nonpublic preschool, elementary, or high school that offers subjects such as reading, grammar, mathematics, social studies, and science would qualify for financial assistance under the proposed law. These schools would not be subject to government oversight, and state funds could be used to purchase religious items, such as bibles.

Williams, the driving force behind the private school voucher plan, argued that it would benefit Kansas children in need of religious guidance.

Williams expressed during a forum on March 20, "There are some kids that do need Jesus first, before they care about science and math."

The amended legislation still specifies that private schools are exempt from government oversight, and state funds can be used for the purchase of religious items.

Baumgardner defended this provision, stating, "If a parent is making a different choice, the state is not dictating what that choice should be."

Leah Fliter, assistant executive director of advocacy at the Kansas Association of School Boards, indicated that the organization is closely monitoring all the changes to the program.

Fliter stated, "Hopefully, we will have some resolution soon. We will continue to oppose vouchers in any form they take. We do not support the use of public funds for private schools."

Kansas Reflector is a part of States Newsroom, a network of news bureaus that is supported by grants and a coalition of donors as a 501c(3) public charity. Kansas Reflector maintains its editorial independence. For inquiries, contact Editor Sherman Smith: info@kansasreflector.com. Follow Kansas Reflector on Facebook and Twitter.

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