When culture-war battles reach a fevered pitch as they have in this year’s legislative session, a dynamic is created that makes rational decisions difficult.
Legislation passed under such circumstances can result in, frankly, a mess.
As of March 6, the future of Kansas students is at stake under the revamped HB 2218 voucher bill. Now SB 83, the bill is strategic, but not quite rational and not a true compromise offer.
SB83 weds the highly controversial HB2218 voucher bill to funding for increased teacher pay and special education funding.
With only Republican support for SB83, it’s hardly a stretch to believe the move is an attempt to force Governor Kelly into signing the bill and thus secure teacher raises amid a growing teacher shortage and increase special education funding that she requested previously.
Compromise legislation is at the core of American politics; however, compromise means a middle state between conflicting opinions. In this case, some bi-partisan support exists for teacher pay increases and for special education funding as required by federal policy. This makes SB83 more of a power play than a true compromise.
Currently, SB83 offers parents the yearly per-pupil state funding amount of about $5,000 in vouchers for their students in grades one to 12 and preschoolers with disabilities. Eventually, qualifying students would be those with parental income of less than 300 percent of the poverty line which currently is $180,000 per year for a family of four.
Parents could use the vouchers for accredited and nonaccredited private schools, micro-schools,supporting individual home school activities and other educational opportunities.
Overall, how would students fare if SB83 becomes law?
For rural students, it’s hard to tell, since in more than 60 of Kansas’ 105 counties there are no private schools students may attend.
For rural students, sports, music, and activities that go beyond school are the heart of community life. Moreover, school districts are frequently the largest employer in rural counties. Funding loss caused by vouchers could mean a significant reduction in teaching staff.
There is no body of research to inform us whether rural students would do better under the fragmented system offered in SB83. Yet, it’s a stretch to believe that micro schools and individual learning activities could replace the resources or state certified teachers needed for rigorous STEM and other courses rural schools offer and students need to succeed in 21st century careers.
I grew up in a small, farming community, pulling tax dollars away from rural schools saddens me because I can see the loss this legislative step toward school privatization would bring for students, the rural economy and the values of farm life.
For low- and middle-income urban students SB83 doesn’t offer practical benefits because the $5,000 voucher wouldn’t cover tuition at many private schools in urban areas and, if it did, it wouldn’t cover additional transportation costs or after school childcare.
For high income students whose family income is near the $180,000 cap, a voucher would merely cushion private school tuition since these families often are already using private schooling.
SB83 would create two school systems--the taxpayer funded public school system governed by elected school board members and an expensive, disorganized, under-regulated voucher system that may possibly attract many but realistically would benefit few.
An up-down vote in the legislature is only fair when an issue like school vouchers is splitting the state.
Sharon Hartin Iorio is Dean Emerita Wichita State University College of Education.