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'School choice' plan hurts rural families, schools

March 22, 2023 at 12:00 a.m.

The Kansas House of Representatives wants to give your tax dollars to well-off families so that they can put their kids in private schools. That's a recipe for underfunded public schools and propping up dodgy educational endeavors.

The House on Wednesday passed a bill to create the Sunflower Education Equity Scholarship Fund. It would give thousands of lucky families about $5,000 per year to spend on private school tuition, tutoring, educational supplies and even school uniforms. The money also could be used for home schooling.

Republicans just don't want you to call it a "voucher" program. The lawmakers who passed the bill know that's a loaded word that isn't too popular with a lot of Kansans. They insist it's a "scholarship fund." (See, it's right there in the name.) And that the money is for "education savings accounts." (Savings means people putting their own money aside, not government spending.)

Whatever you call it, the bill would divert state taxpayer dollars to private schools and home schooling. The Kansas Division of Budget estimates it would cost $152 million per year. That's public money that wouldn't be available to still-underfunded public schools.

No one should expect this to be the end of it, either. In a few years, Republicans will declare it a success and try to expand it to all Kansans in private schools.

When the program is fully implemented, a family of four with household income of $180,000 in today's dollars would be eligible. That might not be the top 1% of earners, but it's hardly poverty.

Most low-income Kansans, even with a few thousand dollars of help, still couldn't afford tuition at a private school. There's a sweet spot in there somewhere, but many of the beneficiaries can afford private school already.

Rural residents should be especially outraged, as they'd end up subsidizing urban students. Most private schools are located in the state's urban areas. Unless a family in a rural community has a nearby private school that aligns with their values, or the wherewithal to home-school their kids, their taxes will go into the Sunflower Fund -- but they'll never benefit from it.

Because the public pays for education, it imposes standards and transparency on public schools. Those schools might not always live up to the public's expectations, but the public then has the power to elect new education leaders and new lawmakers to fix things.

Private schools and home schools aren't held to the same standards. Kansans would have no assurance that their tax dollars are going to good use. Indeed, unaccountable private schools can go far off the rails.

Consider, for example, the case of a home schooling network in Ohio that recently received national attention. Parents in the group taught their children lessons grounded in Nazi ideology. They based writing exercises on quotes by Adolf Hitler, lionized Confederate generals and denigrated Martin Luther King Jr as a "deceitful, dishonest, riot-inducing negro."

Closer to home, residents of Kansas City recently witnessed another risk with private schools: Bigotry can leave a school and families unexpectedly in the lurch. Such was the case with Urban Christian Academy. It might have had internal challenges, but it's closing basically because its backers couldn't stomach support for the LGBTQ community.

On Wednesday, the bill passed the House with a close 64-61 vote. Only one Democrat -- Kansas City, Kansas, freshman state Rep. Marvin Robinson -- voted for it. Notably, 64 votes is not enough to overcome a gubernatorial veto if it comes to that, and it should come to that if the bill passes the state Senate and winds up on Gov. Laura Kelly's desk.

Republicans put some sugar in the bill to entice Kelly. There's money for special education, which is one of the governor's priorities, as well as a gimmick to let schools with declining enrollment hold onto more funding based on past years' enrollment. It also would mandate raises for teachers, though it provides no money to pay for them. Those ideas deserve their own up-or-down votes.

If Republicans don't want to fund special education to the level it needs to be funded, that's on them. They shouldn't use the issue to try to buy the governor's support for an awful voucher -- er, scholarship fund -- program. Public funds belong in accountable public schools, not subsidizing unaccountable private schools.

-- Kansas City Star, March 16

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