The Kansas House narrowly passed a bill on March 15 that would raise teacher pay and increase funding for special education while also establishing a far-reaching school choice program. 

The education savings account measure would give qualifying families about $5,000 of tax money to use toward the cost of private school tuition or homeschooling.

The vote sets up a potential quandary for Gov. Laura Kelly, who supports additional funding for special-ed but opposes voucher-type programs that would use state money to fund unregulated private schools not subject to government oversight.

How Vouchers Would Work

Under the Sunflower Education Equity Act portion of the legislation, immediate family members couldn’t charge or collect payment for tuition for students, but parents would be able to charge tuition and collect fees for schools they operated, including home schools, as long as their own child isn’t a student.

Parents could use the account money for tuition expenses, uniforms, textbooks or other items. The bill stipulates that the context or religious nature of a product or service wouldn’t be considered when determining payment, meaning state dollars could be used to purchase Bibles and religious objects.

The state would begin making payments to private school students in the 2023 to 2024 school year, creating special savings accounts monitored by the state treasurer. Each eligible private school recipient could draw $5,000 annually from the state.

Any nonpublic preschool, elementary, or high school that teaches reading, grammar, mathematics, social studies and science would be eligible for the program, if approved by program regulators. 

In the first phase implementation of the program, eligibility would be limited to students attending or eligible to attend preschool and those who were enrolled and attending public school in grades K-12 during the previous school year. 

Eligible students in this age range would include those who qualify for the national free or reduced lunch program or scored very low on state assessments for language arts or mathematics. The program would be opened for all K-12 students if fewer than 2,000 eligible students enrolled in the program during the first phase.

Supporters & Opponents

Supporters of education savings accounts, which have passed in several other states, say the programs give more families an alternative to public schools.

Opponents — including public school superintendents, teachers unions and the Kansas State Board of Education — say they’re an attempt to defund and undermine public schools. They say there’s no evidence that voucher programs work or that students do better academically in private schools.

During a House hearing on the bill, Augusta Republican Rep. Kristey Williams, a longtime proponent of school choice measures, pointed to sharp declines in state test scores among low-income students and said families need alternatives to public schools.

“Plummeting student outcomes cannot be answered with simply adding more money or more time,” Williams said. Education savings accounts, “I’m suggesting education freedom — allowing parents to provide the best type of education that fits the needs of the child,” she said. “And it is not always a traditional school.”

The Kansas House approved the measure by a vote of 64-61. The bill now heads back to the Senate.   

The final vote was well short of the two-thirds majority needed to override a veto by the governor.

By Suzanne Perez, Kansas News Service and Rachel Mipro and Tim Carpenter, The Kansas Reflector