June 2, 2023

Kansas Republicans tie exclusive education money to school decision

State Rep. Kristey Williams, an Augusta Republican, has been a driving force behind the education policy bill.

Point out Rep. Kristey Williams, an Augusta Republican, has been a driving pressure driving the instruction policy bill.

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A Kansas House committee voted Monday to tie Democratic Gov. Laura Kelly’s request for new special education funding to a voucher-like school choice bill she is all but certain to oppose.

The committee approved $72 million in special education funding, the amount Kelly has requested for this year’s budget. But the funding was approved in a bill establishing an educational savings account program, which allows some Kansas families to use the dollars Kansas would spend on their child’s public education in private or home schooling.

The bill now heads to the House floor where lawmakers could debate and vote on it at any time. The bill will move to a conference committee with the Kansas Senate if it passes the House.

If the bill reaches Kelly’s desk lawmakers are essentially daring her to either approve a program she has long opposed or veto new funding for special education, which has been a key piece of her second term platform.

Kelly’s spokeswoman Brianna Johnson said in a statement the governor would evaluate the bill if it reached her desk.

“Her priority is ensuring public schools maintain full funding and have the resources they need to serve every student, including our special education students,” she said.

Earlier this year, Kelly told reporters she would not sign any “school voucher” programs and believed taxpayer dollars should be focused on Kansas’ public schools.

Senate Bill 83, which the House K-12 Budget Committee amended and approved Monday, establishes an educational savings account for any public school student who is on free and reduced lunch or testing at the lowest level.

Rep. Kristey Williams, an Augusta Republican who chairs the committee, said she hoped Kelly would approve the program despite her historic opposition.

“Not every kid is going to excel in a public school or private school. We need schools that fit their needs,” Williams said.

“I think that she would want to recognize that matching a student with the right environment, with the right teacher, with the right type of instruction, with the right interests of that child is really important.”

House Democrats expressed frustration with the bill decrying it as an attempt to use special education funding to earn the votes of members who would otherwise reject the educational savings accounts.

“I resent the committee putting good policy that we all support and know needs to be done to state to a voucher bill that will still be a voucher bill and undermine our public schools,” said Rep. Mari-Lynn Poskin, a Leawood Democrat.

Kansas has long underfunded special education, resulting in understaffing, safety issues for students and general education funds being diverted.

Expansions of school choice have been a goal of Kansas Republicans who argue families should be able to move their child to a different school if their public school isn’t serving their needs.

Democrats and public school advocates have argued the measures harm public schools by diverting dollars to private schools that are not held to the same standards and are not required to accept all students.

The bill will phase in eligibility for existing private school students beginning with 2,000 students whose families make below 300% of the federal poverty level allowed to participate.

It also includes a provision mandating districts issue raises for teachers.

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Katie Bernard covers the Kansas Legislature and condition authorities for the Kansas City Star. She joined the Star as a breaking news reporter in May of 2019 ahead of transferring to the politics team in December 2020. Katie analyzed journalism and political science at the College of Kansas.