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Kansas Republicans struggle to pass school choice plan


TOPEKA, Kan. (AP) — Republican lawmakers in Kansas who say parents need alternatives to public schools struggled Friday to pass even a more modest version of the school choice plans enacted in other GOP-leaning states.

The Republican-controlled Legislature's biggest obstacle has been Democratic Gov. Laura Kelly. But GOP conservatives also have had trouble winning over some rural Republicans who don't see proposals to give parents tax dollars for private or home schooling as benefitting their students.

Lawmakers did approve a bill providing $6.3 billion for K-12 public schools, the bulk of their operating funds for the 2023-24 school year, including an expansion of an existing program that gives income tax credits to donors to funds offering private school scholarships to low-income students. Total credits would remain capped at $10 million a year.

The votes Friday were 87-37 in the House and 23-16 in the Senate, sending the measure to Kelly. Public education groups have urged a veto, arguing in part that it does not sufficiently fund special education. A veto would likely force the governor to call a special session to ensure that schools could operate for a full year.

But as lawmakers rushed to finish their work for the year, GOP leaders weren't sure the Senate would consider another bill to create a broader program to help families with low or modest incomes pay for private or home schooling. It would be targeted to the 10 most populous counties and give those parents $4,848 for the upcoming school year, with the amount rising in the future.

The struggles of advocates for such programs in Kansas contrast sharply with their successes in Iowa and Utah, where GOP lawmakers approved statewide programs in January and saw GOP governors sign them. But Kansas voters narrowly reelected Kelly in November.

Had Kelly's GOP opponent won, said state Rep. Kristey Williams, a Wichita-area Republican who chairs a House committee on K-12 spending, “I think we would definitely have school choice.”

Supporters of using state funds for school choice argue that it benefits students who struggle in public schools, and they also contend that competition will force those schools to improve. Pandemic-era school closures and battles over curriculum — particularly on race and gender — have further fueled GOP interest.

“Every child in the state of Kansas should have an opportunity for success, and if they’re not succeeding in our public schools, we need to provide them an opportunity somewhere, somehow,” Williams said.

But Democrats and moderates, along with teachers and administrators, fear such programs will siphon money from public schools because their state funding is tied to enrollment. Some rural Republicans are also skeptical, arguing that their students won't be able to leave public schools because there are too few private ones nearby.

This week Kelly attended a Statehouse news conference held by a dozen former state teachers of the year who oppose the use of tax dollars to pay for private or home schooling. Speaking from the podium, Kelly said the state needs to be fully funding its public schools instead of “diverting public funds to private schools.”

“This is the foundation of our state,” Kelly said, with the teachers standing behind her. “Without the work that these people do in our school buildings, there would be no Kansas. We would have no work force.”

Tracy Taylor Callard, a Wichita educator and the 2002 teacher of the year, said public schools allow children of different backgrounds and from different neighborhoods to interact.

“We all know that public schools are under attack,” she said at the same event.

The school choice proposal — derided as a voucher plan by critics — would piggyback onto a program created by Kelly.

That program, funded through U.S. government coronavirus relief, provides $1,000 a year to low-income parents of public school students to help them cover education expenses.

The $4,848 payments envisioned under the GOP proposal would be available to families with a household income of 250% or less of the U.S. poverty level, or $75,000 for a family of four.

The program would be targeted to Kansas' most populous counties. School districts in those counties could opt out if their low-income students perform well enough on standardized tests. Separately, other districts elsewhere could join the program.

But the measure would likely be doomed by Kelly's expected veto, with Republicans apparently unable to muster a supermajority for an override.

Electing a GOP governor would have made the difference, said Senate President Ty Masterson, another Wichita-area Republican.

“I think of all the things that would have gone with just simple majorities,” Masterson said. ___

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