Legislative leaders: Proposed school finance formula gives parents choices

Rachael Taylor, right, Parnia Razi, middle and Shayla Roper at East High School in Wichita. (2016)
Rachael Taylor, right, Parnia Razi, middle and Shayla Roper at East High School in Wichita. (2016) File photo

Leaders of the Kansas House and Senate education committees were in Wichita on Friday to plug a proposed school funding formula that would allow parents to use tax funds for private schools.

“For your child, who’s in charge?” Sen. Steve Abrams, R-Arkansas City, asked members of the Wichita Pachyderm Club during a luncheon forum Friday. “Right now the state is.”

Abrams, chairman of the Senate Education Committee, said, “If you are low-income or moderate-income and can’t afford $5,000 to $10,000 per year in order to send them to private school, what are your options? Your options: public school. That’s it.”

Abrams and Rep. Ron Highland, R-Wamego, chairman of the House Education Committee, said a provision in House Bill 2741 would allow parents to use 70 percent of the per-pupil state aid that would have gone to their local school district to instead pay for private schools, including religious schools or home schools.

The proposal also would prohibit spending state aid for food service programs and for extracurricular activities.

The measure drew enthusiastic applause from the room full mostly of Republicans in the Petroleum Club meeting room.

“It’s not public money, it’s taxpayer money,” Highland said. “The treasurer has it, they give it to the parent, and then the parent decides.

“Now, will it be challenged? You absolutely bet it will be,” he said. “It will be a big fight, but at least we have to try. We have to do something.”

Opponents of the bill, which would replace the state’s block grant funding system, say the concept lacks financial and academic accountability. Abrams and Highland said it would give parents choices.

“There is nothing in the (state) constitution that says there must be some kind of state assessment or anything to follow up,” Abrams said.

“If parents are in charge of their own student, of their own kid, then they’re going to be the ones to make the determination about, ‘I am happy with this particular situation,’ ” he said.

“If the state is in charge, then the question remains: Should the public be happy with the (test) scores that we’re getting?”

Questioned why the proposed bill doesn’t push to expand charter schools — something Senate President Susan Wagle had pledged in the past — both lawmakers said that may require a complex constitutional battle.

“Kansas has one of the worst charter school laws in the country,” Highland said. “And to change that will be a storm that nobody really wanted to step into this year.

“This is a huge storm that we’ve stepped into, but the charter school is a situation where we are facing the entire education community. … We chose to go this route rather than the charter school route because it opened up more doors.”

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

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