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Narrow target of educational choice bill

A controversial part of the proposed new Kansas school funding system introduced last month would broaden school choice for Kansas families by creating educational savings accounts (ESAs) equal to 70 percent of the average cost of educating a Kansas public school student. Parents could use the ESA at any private school of their choice. Legislative hearings on the idea may begin next week.

If you’re a parent of limited economic means who can’t afford to move to a wealthier area where the public schools are relatively good, or put your children in a private school now, the ESA proposal should not be controversial, but a blessing.

Kansas ranks low among all states in providing families with the ability to choose schools. Our constitution vests all authority over K-12 education in a State Board of Education that has long been hostile to public charter schools, which have more organizational freedom than conventional schools.

Parents theoretically can ask local schools to move their children elsewhere, but as a practical matter, this option is illusory because it requires the public school to approve the transfer, which rarely happens.

In 2013, the Legislature authorized up to 10 percent of the state’s school districts to become “innovation districts” that would permit charterlike schools, but only six districts so far have been designated. Wichita is not among them (it hasn’t applied).

Kansas also has a limited choice program that gives tax credits to companies supporting scholarships for poor students attending the lowest-performing schools to attend private schools, but the requirements are so strict that fewer than 100 students have been helped this way.

As a former federal antitrust prosecutor who fought monopolies that limited choice by consumers in the products and services they buy, I see no reason why public monopolies that deny choice should be treated differently. If ESAs are the only method for giving large numbers of low- and moderate-income parents control over what is almost certainly the most important investment decision they will make for their kids, then so be it.

The Kansas ESA proposal, as it currently stands, however, is too broad: It is available to any Kansas family, including those who already can afford to pay for private school. The bill should be narrowed to target families with limited means who really need the choices, say, those with incomes less than twice the federal poverty level.

The bill also would more likely survive constitutional challenge if ESAs could not be used for religious schools, while benefits should be adjusted for home-schooled students, who should take the same standardized tests as students in public schools and score above some minimum threshold.

Critics say ESAs would divert money from public schools. In fact, demand for teachers would be roughly the same as now, though some teachers probably would move to private schools, while fewer teachers in public schools would mean lower public spending.

The impact on teachers of ESAs should not be the central issue, however. It’s the kids who matter.

Robert Litan, a Wichita attorney and economist, is an adjunct senior fellow at the Council on Foreign Relations and a board member of Success for Kansas Students.

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