Kansas education advocates see vouchers and hostility as attempts to undermine public schools

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Marcus Baltzell and Leah Fliter say Kansas Legislature is leaning into national trend of public school distrust

TOPEKA — Between voucher programs and new parental rights legislation, education officials say public schools are having a rough time.

During a recording of the Kansas Reflector podcast, Marcus Baltzell, director of communications for the Kansas National Education Association, and Leah Fliter, Kansas Association of School Boards assistant executive director of advocacy, discussed the state of K-12 education, along with recent legislation that would take away funding from public schools.

Voucher bills

Baltzell said recently proposed voucher programs were blatant power grabs, including House Bill 2218, which would become the “sunflower education equity act” if passed. The bill passed out of committee Wednesday in a modified form.

While full implementation wouldn’t happen until four years after the legislation is passed, the program would allow parents to set aside a portion of public school funding — about $5,000 per student — for use at private or home schools, including unregulated, unaccredited schools.

HB2218 would also set up a 10-member board to manage the program, which would receive compensation. Critics have said the board would be slanted in favor of Republicans because of member requirements, and also might have too broad an influence on K-12 education in the state. 

“If you wanted to set up a kind of a shadow board of education, if you wanted to completely circumnavigate the Constitution and the constitutional authority of the State Board of Education, this is how you would do it,” Baltzell said. “You would set up this group, you would tie it to legislation around a voucher scheme, you would then set up this board that has essentially decision-making authority over all aspects of this.”

Baltzell and Fliter also discussed House Bill 2048, which would expand a tax credit that allows taxpayers to write off up to $500,000 worth of scholarships they provide for private schools.

Another bill, Senate Bill 128, would give taxpayers a refundable income tax credit for K-12 children not enrolled in public schools. The bill stipulates that taxpayers who have a student enrolled in an accredited nonpublic school or a nonaccredited school registered with the Kansas State Department of Education are eligible. The tax credit would be given to Kansans starting in fiscal year 2024, as long as their student isn’t included in the enrollment of a public school district.

Fliter said legislation like this is meant to draw students and funding away from public schools by giving financial incentives for parents to switch to private education. She said lawmakers were framing the legislation as a way to give parents more educational freedom in order to popularize the idea.

“They know that the voucher thing is not popular,” Fliter said. “And so to cast it as a parent’s right over their child is another tactic. Kansas parents have many, many, many legal rights over their children. Children are minors until they turn 18. That means their parent or guardian has legal rights over their education, over everything they do. And so it’s just a somewhat cynical ploy to try to make a voucher seem more palatable.”

Leah Fliter participates in a recording of the Kansas Reflector podcast
Leah Fliter, a lobbyist for the Kansas Association of School Board, says attempts to champion parental rights are a “cynical ploy” to win support for private school vouchers. (Sherman Smith/Kansas Reflector)

Rhetoric around teachers

The two said rhetoric surrounding public school and public school teachers also served to lure parents away from public education. Lawmakers have discussed a new form of parental rights legislation and accused teachers of being too radical.

Under House Bill 2236, parents could object to any educational materials or activities they believe would harm the student’s or parents’ beliefs, values or principles. Educational materials would include reading material, websites, videos and textbooks. Parents could withdraw their children from courses they find objectionable without harm to the student’s academic records. Critics of the bill say the legislation is overbroad.

During the bill hearing, Rep. Owen Donohue, a Shawnee Republican, said he thought it would be embarrassing to be a teacher, especially because they were teaching materials such as critical race theory. Donohoe said he was glad parents had the option of scholarships and homeschooling.

“If you look at history, it’s just an abysmal record,” Donohoe said. “It’s embarrassing to say, I would think, that I’m a teacher, when we’re getting the kind of results, or have been, in this state.”

Republicans in the House and Senate have made fighting a so-called “sexualized woke agenda” a legislative priority this session, with some arguing that Kansas students are struggling with mental health as a result of being taught an unnecessary and radical curriculum in public schools.

A former teacher of the year who appeared before lawmakers to urge them to stop using harmful rhetoric about public educators was told that people like her were the real deterrent.

Fliter said increasing criticism of public school teachers while promoting parents’ rights and voucher programs is nothing new. She said her colleagues in Michigan, Ohio, Arizona and Florida were grappling with similar legislative pushes.

Arizona passed the most expansive private school voucher law in the U.S. in 2022, allowing parents of school-age children to take 90% of the state money that would normally go to their local public school and use it toward private or other school costs.

“This is just almost chapter and verse from the process that some of those states have gone through — they’ve just been dealing with it longer,” Fliter said. “And they have seen the absolute hollowing out of public schools. Kids are forced to go to a for-profit school because their local public neighborhood school has been so decimated in its funding and other resources that the parents are forced to send them to a different school, where their needs aren’t met.”

Kansas Reflector is part of States Newsroom, a network of news bureaus supported by grants and a coalition of donors as a 501c(3) public charity. Kansas Reflector maintains editorial independence. Contact Editor Sherman Smith for questions: info@kansasreflector.com. Follow Kansas Reflector on Facebook and Twitter.

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