Senior Republican lawmakers in the Kansas are focusing on helping conservative parents pull their children out of public schools because of what they teach about gender and sexuality, rather than enacting a version of what critics call Florida’s “Don’t Say Gay” law.
A proposal to allow parents to use state tax dollars to pay for private or home schooling was to be available online Tuesday, a day after the K-12 Appropriations Committee introduced the measure in the House.
The introduction comes as funding and lesson plans for public schools have become hot-button issues for conservative politicians across the country. Legislators in Iowa approved similar legislation last week, and at least a dozen states are considering similar legislation.
Directing public funds to private schools is not a new idea, but it has gained new momentum since the outbreak of the coronavirus pandemic in part because of parents’ concerns about masks and vaccines. The issue has also been fueled by opposition to how some schools teach lessons on topics such as gender, sexuality and race.
Critics of the bills say they siphon much-needed money from public schools.
When Kansas was under Republican control Legislative power As they opened their annual session earlier this month, GOP leaders planned to tackle what Senate President Ty Masterson called a “sexualized agenda” in how public schools discuss sexuality and gender identity.
Masterson, a Wichita-area Republican, said he wants to pass a measure that would say schools can teach or discuss these topics based on grade level, similar to a Florida law passed last year.
But last week, when asked about such a measure, Masterson seemed to change direction: “We’re talking about school choice.” He told The Associated Press on Monday, “Probably the only way to deal with it, really, is to have choices for parents.”
The proposal before the House is the brainchild of K-12 Appropriations Committee Chairwoman State Rep. Christy Williams, another Wichita Republican. She said she hopes to hold a hearing next week.
Her bill would allow parents to apply to set up a state-funded education savings account for each of their children, with the state allocating the current amount of its basic per-pupil aid to public schools. That’s $5,103 for the 2023-24 school year, an amount that will increase if the state increases its aid. Parents would receive 95%, and the rest would go to the state to cover administrative costs.
Kansas already provides an income tax break for donations to foundations that provide scholarships so at-risk students can attend private schools, a program Republican lawmakers want to expand. But in the US, conservative lawmakers argue that tax dollars should be tied to students, not “systems.”
Williams also called her plan “the perfect answer” for parents frustrated that public schools teach about gender, sexuality or the impact of racism in U.S. history. Currently, she said, parents can’t change schools if they can’t afford the extra costs.
“But given the choice, it gives the freedom to choose the best and most appropriate education, the best and most appropriate type of environment,” she said.
Public education groups and Democratic lawmakers say such proposals would take money away from public K-12 schools in favor of private and home schools. They reject Masterson’s characterization of public schools as “factories for a radical social agenda” and argue that GOP conservatives are trying to dismantle public education.
State Rep. Jarrod Owsley, a Kansas City Democrat whose wife serves on the local school board, said public schools help build communities.
“It’s the fabric of our nation,” Usley said.
Democratic Gov. Laura Kelly strongly opposes a plan like the one that has been introduced in the House. Her major education initiative is gradually increasing spending on state K-12 programs for students with special needs by 61% over five years.
Republicans have a supermajority in the Legislature that would allow them to override Kelly’s veto, though GOP leaders have struggled to keep Republicans united on education.
Meanwhile, advocates of private and home schooling say parents want more choice because they have been unhappy with distance learning during the coronavirus pandemic.
Fallon Love, a Wichita resident, who works in restaurant finance across states, enrolled her 7-year-old son in second grade at City Preparatory Academy, which is operated by the non-denominational Christian Faith Center in Wichita.
Love said she likes the “intimate” learning environment at the academy and feels her son is learning positive character traits while getting opportunities like last week’s trip to the State House for a school choice event.
“There are many parents who are not fortunate enough to decide where their children go,” she said after the rally. “Everyone should have the right to decide where to send their child to get the best education.”
Wade Moore, one of the church’s bishops, told the crowd at the rally that a school choice law similar to the one in Iowa allows parents to avoid the “insanity” of public schools. After the rally, he said he meant both violence, such as fights, and issues, such as which bathrooms and locker rooms transgender students can use.
“A lot of this is imposed on children, families,” he said after the rally.
Follow John Hanna on Twitter: https://twitter.com/apjdhanna