School Choice Plan Fails in Kansas
TOPEKA, Kan. (AP) — Conservative Republicans set aside their most ambitious proposal for helping Kansas parents move their children into private schools so that lawmakers could forge a bipartisan compromise Thursday night on education funding and policy.
Three state senators and three House members drafted the final version of a bill funding public schools as top Republicans in the GOP-controlled Legislature negotiated privately with Democratic Gov. Laura Kelly over the measure. They had yet to strike a deal Thursday night, but Republicans said GOP leaders and the governor were close.
Conservative wanted to tie an increase in aid to the state’s 286 local public school districts to “school choice” initiatives but were unable to pass a bill with that combination. Democrats and education groups would prefer to provide the money with no new strings.
The education bill includes Kelly’s proposed spending on schools, tied to a proposal to expand an existing program for providing private-school scholarships to students in underperforming public elementary schools. It also includes a raft of other policies, including limits on remote learning that became prevalent during the COVID-19 pandemic.
“There are definitely pieces in it that I don’t love, but at the end of the day, we’re fully funding schools,” said Senate Minority Leader Dinah Sykes, a Lenexa Democrat and one of the measure’s drafters.
Lawmakers didn’t yet have a promise from Kelly that she’d sign the measure they drafted. But House Speaker Ron Ryckman Jr., an Olathe Republican, said she and GOP leaders had moved closer to full funding for schools with “an expansion of options for parental choice.”
Mike Pirner, spokesperson for Senate President Ty Masterson, an Andover Republican, said in text to The AP: “All I can say is it’s close and a lot of stakeholders are talking.”
The Legislature cannot wrap up its business for the year without finishing work on a spending blueprint for state government approaching $21 billion for the budget year that begins July 1. Funding for public schools would account for $5.2 billion in spending.
GOP leaders hoped to adjourn late Friday or on Saturday.
Kelly proposed an increase in education funding of $263 million, or 5.3%, in line with a law enacted in 2019 to resolve a 2010 lawsuit against the state brought by four school districts. That lawsuit remains before the Kansas Supreme Court, and Democrats believe failing to provide as money as Kelly has recommended will prompt the justices to intervene.
The House last month approved a bill containing Kelly’s spending, but it also passed a proposal from conservative Republicans that would send education funds to education savings accounts for academically troubled students that could be used to pay for private schooling. Democrats and education groups argued that education savings accounts potentially could siphon tens of millions of dollars from public schools.