Report: Some Kansas students taking advantage of tax-credit scholarship program

Teacher Madelene Moore reads a story about Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. to her kindergarten/second-grade class at Urban Preparatory Academy. The school is a K-6 private school in the old Mueller Elementary building in Wichita.
Teacher Madelene Moore reads a story about Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. to her kindergarten/second-grade class at Urban Preparatory Academy. The school is a K-6 private school in the old Mueller Elementary building in Wichita. The Wichita Eagle

About 150 Kansas students have been deemed eligible for a new school choice program that awards tax credits on corporate donations to private-school scholarships, according to a report by the Kansas Department of Education.

The tax credit program, approved by state lawmakers in 2014, allows low-income students to receive up to $8,000 a year toward private-school tuition from state-approved “scholarship granting organizations.”

To be eligible for a scholarship, students must qualify for the federal free lunch program and attend one of the state’s lowest-performing Title I schools, known as priority and focus schools.

People or corporations who donate to the scholarship granting organizations receive a nonrefundable tax credit for up to 70 percent of the amount of their donation.

Of the students eligible, about half were awarded scholarships this school year, including 18 in Wichita. The average scholarship was about $1,500.

Since the program launched last January, the majority of students determined to be eligible for tax-credit scholarships — 90 of 149 — were from the Kansas City, Kan., school district, according to the report.

Thirty-two students from the Topeka school district qualified for scholarships, and 21 students from Wichita, the state’s largest school district.

The state has certified five scholarship granting organizations, including the Catholic Education Foundation in Kansas City, Kan.; Community First Inc., in Topeka; and Renewanation, a Virginia-based nonprofit group devoted to expanding “Christian worldview education.”

In Wichita, the scholarship program so far has benefited 18 students who attend Urban Preparatory Academy, a private school founded by local pastor Wade Moore. Moore’s church, Christian Faith Centre Inc., was certified by the state as one of the five scholarship granting organizations.

The Independent School in Wichita also is certified to grant scholarships, but it hadn’t granted any as of Dec. 28, according to the report.

Urban Preparatory Academy, which opened last year in the former Mueller Elementary School near 24th and Hillside, has 39 students in kindergarten through sixth grade.

Tuition is $4,500 a year, but “about 98.9 percent of our children are on scholarship,” Moore said.

“This year we tripled our attendance, and that lets us know that the need is there for schools of choice,” he said. “Parents really want their children to have this dynamic opportunity that we’re trying to provide.”

According to the KSDE report, 73 students so far have been awarded scholarships for the 2015-16 school year, totaling $108,384.

The state Department of Revenue recorded seven contributions to the program, which totaled $776,000. That amounted to $543,200 in tax credits, according to the report.

Because contributions are made and distributed through nonprofit scholarship granting organizations, the names of people or businesses making donations are not public, said Kathleen Smith, who oversees the tax credit part of the program for the Kansas Department of Revenue.

When lawmakers established the program, they set a $10 million cap on tax credits. If donations reach that level, that would mean at least 1,250 students could leave public schools for private education.

Moore said the program is “a good first step” toward school choice initiatives, which he supports, but the report shows not many Kansas students are taking advantage of the tax credit scholarships yet.

In his State of the State address Tuesday, Gov. Sam Brownback proposed expanding the tax-credit scholarship program.

“They (opponents) said, ‘Every student is going to leave every district and jump into this thing, and there’s not going to be anybody left to teach in the schools,’” Moore said.

“We did not empty out (USD) 259,” he said. “It’s not a whole lot of people, but there are some families who do take advantage of this. … We were able to reach some kids and change their lives.”

To qualify for the program, low-income students must attend — or be eligible to attend — one of the state’s 99 lowest-performing schools, known as priority and focus schools. Wichita, the state’s largest district, has 28 priority or focus schools; Kansas City, Kan., has 30 schools on the list.

Craig Neuenswander, director of school finance for the state Department of Education, said the report released by his office last week was a requirement of the new legislation.

“We didn’t know what to expect, particularly in the first year of it,” Neuenswander said. “There was no way to know even how many scholarship granting organizations there would be, much less how many students would apply.”

Suzanne Perez Tobias: 316-268-6567, @suzannetobias