Politics & Government

School-choice provisions return to Kansas tax-plan bill

TOPEKA – Lawmakers added a school-choice provision to their tax plan Friday to allow direct payment of tax credit-supported scholarships to religious schools where parents tithe as payment for their children’s tuition.

A House-Senate tax conference committee added that to the latest tax bill, scheduled for a midnight vote on the Senate floor.

Sen. Les Donovan, R-Wichita, said the provision is important to implementing a school-choice program passed last year that offers 70 percent tax credits to corporations donating to scholarships for at-risk students to leave public schools and go to private ones.

Pressed by Rep. Tom Sawyer, D-Wichita, Donovan said it would expand the program to students who aren’t eligible now “because their parents pay their way into school through tithing.”

Many religious schools allow students to attend without paying full tuition if their families tithe by donating 10 percent of their income to the church.

The school-choice provision was originally contained in SB 270, one of two bills that were gutted to make way for tax plans.

Rep. John Bradford, R-Lansing, asked in a Republican caucus meeting Thursday that that original content be put back in. He was assured by House tax chairman Marvin Kleeb, R-Overland Park, that they would be.

Rep. Melissa Rooker, R-Fairway, said she was surprised that the school-choice provision came back to life in the caucus meeting.

“In the current fiscal climate, why are we looking for expansion of tax credits when we can’t afford the ones we have?” she said.

And although it’s called a scholarship program, the tax credit for donors means “it’s still state money getting laundered into the private (school) system that way,” she said.

In addition, the bill would:

▪ Remove a requirement that parents who use the private-school scholarships give up their child’s eligibility to receive special-education services from the public school. Rooker said that proposed change would force public schools to provide services to students who have left and don’t count toward the school’s overall funding.

▪ Set a limit of $8,000 a year on individual students’ scholarships. If the donations reach the program cap of $10 million total, that would mean at least 1,250 students could leave the public schools for private education.

▪ Clarify that private schools receiving the scholarship funds can offer elementary or high school education and don’t have to offer both to be eligible.

Reach Dion Lefler at 316-268-6527 or dlefler@wichitaeagle.com.