Opinion Columns & Blogs

How school choice works in Kansas

Sharon Iorio
Sharon Iorio

Mix, match, customize — the modern world is an array of choices that permeate many aspects of our daily lives. Take for example public, PreK-12 school choices approved by the Kansas State Board of Education. While not all options are listed here and not all are found in every school district, the choices include:

School systems. Families may choose traditional neighborhood schools, the Kansas State Department of Education online school, experimental schools approved by KSDE, charter schools that report to a local school district or home schooling.

Programs within traditional schools. These include the high-rigor International Baccalaureate programs, advanced placement, programs for high-risk students, magnet schools that center on a specific content area such as engineering or the arts and technical, career-preparation programs.

Public school partnerships. In this design, school personnel work alongside university faculty and/or corporate employees. These programs include dual (concurrent) enrollment where students’ classes count for both high school and college credit. In other programs, students learn skills needed by future employers and participate in corporate-sponsored internships.

Public support of private schools. Kansas tax structure allows for individuals to donate up to $500,000 in any one year and be reimbursed with a 70 percent tax credit. Low-income families, whose students are in low-performing schools, may apply to a scholarship granting organization for a private-school tuition state scholarship of around $2,300 a year. About 7 percent of Kansas students are eligible. Currently 292 students are receiving scholarships and 78 percent of them attend religious schools. Additionally, individual donors may draw up to $10,000 a year from their Kansas Learning Quest savings accounts for private-school tuition for each of their K-12 students.

Given the opportunities above, Kansas appears to enjoy a remarkably holistic approach to school choice.

The term, school choice, carried a specific definition when it first appeared in the 1950s once Nobel prize-winning economist Milton Friedman proposed vouchers totaling the sum of state funding for any individual student should be allowed for tuition at a private school of choice.

Thus, public schools would be led to improve learning and, at the same time, become more efficient with finance. Within a few years, the U.S. Supreme Court declared voucher systems in six Southern states unconstitutional thus effectively curtailing the voucher movement.

A resurgence in vouchers as part of school reform arose in the 1990s and currently 26 states allow some form of government-funded vouchers, often through tax credits, for specific groups such as foster-care, special needs or low income children. However, since 2000, voucher referendums have been voted down in seven states.

Some Kansas school reformers say vouchers or tax credits that go beyond the low income restrictions imposed for state scholarships would represent the best of Friedman’s intentions and fulfill Constitutional requirements. They wish to increase the size and scope of tax credits.

Kansans must be careful not to conflate economics and education. Milton Friedman’s ideas no longer influence America’s policies. If substantially expanded, tax credits would divert public school funds to private schools, reduce public school funding and result in fewer Kansas tax dollars collected.

More importantly, a sizable swing to tax credits could lead to extensive school privatization with governance by non-elected boards. That result could fragment universal public education and the bond that holds together our society of diverse cultures, races and religions. Kansas currently offers an abundance of school choice. Reform and efficiency can happen without jeopardizing the public school system that embraces all Kansans.

Sharon Hartin Iorio is professor and dean emerita of Wichita State University’s College of Education.

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