Politics & Government

Kansas House, Senate committees advance bills to fix school funding inequities

Cleaveland Traditional Magnet Elementary School first-grade teacher Pam Smith does a reading exercise with her students. (March 7, 2014)
Cleaveland Traditional Magnet Elementary School first-grade teacher Pam Smith does a reading exercise with her students. (March 7, 2014) The Wichita Eagle

House and Senate committees advanced bills Tuesday night intended to address inequity in the distribution of funds to school districts statewide.

The Senate bill would provide a voucher-like tax benefit to families who send all their children to private schools or teach them at home. It also added back about $10.5 million that was proposed to be cut from virtual schools that teach through online learning.

The total of cuts and new revenues contained in the bill passed by the Senate Ways and Means Committee could not immediately be determined.

The House bill contains an estimated $96 million in new spending and covers the cost of equalizing spending among districts. Members of the House Appropriations Committee rejected proposals to expand charter schools and allow a corporate tax credit for private school scholarship donations.

The bills now go to the full Senate and House, respectively.

The Legislature is working to address issues of constitutional fairness identified by the Supreme Court in a ruling last month. The court found inequities in the distribution of money for school construction and the property tax fund known as local option budget.

Legislators have until July 1 to come up with a plan that will meet court requirements for fairness. The price tag to avoid more litigation is $129 million, although some legislators think they can solve the problem with less.

Senate’s bill

Potentially the most controversial action in the Senate committee debate was an amendment by Sen. Steve Abrams, R-Arkansas City, that would establish a property tax credit for families whose children are privately schooled.

Those families would be able to claim as much as a $1,000 credit per child on their property tax, up to a family cap of $2,500.

Abrams, a former member of the state Board of Education, said he doesn’t think it’s fair for parents to have to “pay twice” for their children’s education, once through taxes for public school and again in tuition for private school.

Although the tax break would have the same overall effect as a partial voucher, in essence shifting tax money to pay for private education, Abrams said it’s different because the tax money would not actually be collected from the family receiving the credit.

In a traditional voucher system, they’d pay the tax and get some back for their educational spending, he said.

The tax break would be limited to property owners, so renters would be ineligible. Abrams explained that in his view, renters should be excluded because they don’t pay a direct property tax against which they could claim the credit.

Sen. Marci Francisco, D-Lawrence, who owns rental property, argued during the debate that the property tax cost is folded into the tenants’ rent.

Also ineligible would be families with some of their children in private schools and some in public schools.

Abrams said if a family has even one child in the public schools, they’re benefitting from the system, hence their exclusion from the tax benefit.

Senate President Susan Wagle, R-Wichita, predicted that amendment may not be part of the Senate’s final bill.

She noted that the concept had been rejected once by the committee and passed immediately after the committee’s dinner break, when not all the members had returned.

She also noted that no one has analyzed the potential cost.

“That will be an issue on the floor,” she said. “I’m not confident it stays in the bill.”

Abrams said he’s not going to worry about that.

The biggest apparent dollar change to the original bill was an amendment by Sen. Jim Denning, R-Overland Park, that added back about $10.5 million originally proposed to be sliced from online virtual schools.

The original bill envisioned cutting per-pupil funding for students who attend virtual schools by 50 percent across the board.

Denning’s amendment reduced the cut to about 15 percent of the current funding for full-time students and about 35 percent for part-time students.

House’s version

While the Senate committee passed its bill, a House committee continued to struggle with its bill late into the night, passing its version shortly after 10:30 p.m.

The biggest decision the House Appropriations Committee made was to reject a proposal from Rep. Kasha Kelley, R-Arkansas City, to rapidly expand charter schools.

The committee first convened at 8 a.m. Tuesday with the goal of getting a bill ready to go to the floor on Wednesday.

It was a long day, full of ideological debates and lots of number crunching.

The committee approved a 5 percent cut to transportation budgets and a 10 percent reduction to per student funding for virtual schools.

But most of the debate focused on Kelley’s effort to expand school choice in Kansas.

She offered two amendments that would have restored provisions that had been ditched by House leaders: a corporate tax credit for private school scholarship donations and a plan to expand charter schools that would be independent of locals district and empowered to ignore some state rules and regulations.

Both proposals failed.

But not before Kelley made a nearly hourlong presentation on charter schools referencing the landmark desegregation decision Brown v. Board of Education.

She cited data showing a consistent achievement gap between white students and black and Latino students.

The National Assessment of Educational Progress showed a 22-point gap in fourth grade math scores between white students and black students in Kansas, for example.

Kelley pointed to this and other assessments in which minority students lagged their white peers and said charter schools can help close that gap.

“I’m going to say something really controversial, but I would say … if these numbers were flipped, we would not stand for it,” Kelley said.

Kansas has charter schools now but places them under the authority of local school boards.

Mark Tallman, spokesman for the Kansas Association of School Boards, said that helps ensure accountability with schools that are privately run but receive public money.

“The people of Kansas have said they want their public schools under local control, under local voters,” Tallman said. “And so we’ve always opposed – for that reason – plans that would let someone else come into your community and operate a school without any connection.”

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