TOPEKA, Kan. (KSNT)— Kansas lawmakers held a hearing on a proposed school ‘voucher’ bill Monday. The bill would create an education savings account program for at-risk students in the state.
Lawmakers in the House K-12 Education Budget committee have taken no final action on the bill yet. However, public school advocates are concerned about what this could mean for struggling students if it does pass.
Among opponents’ top concerns is the overly broad nature of eligibility for the program. Some public school advocates believe the bill would not only target a larger portion of Kansas students, compared to other states with similar programs, but it also doesn’t guarantee that students that are severely at-risk will get the help they need.
“A modest income student from a large family could qualify, even if they’re doing fine in school right now, and a truly struggling child in poverty,” Mark Tallman, a spokesperson for the state’s school board association, told the Kansas Capitol Bureau. “There’s absolutely no guarantee that, that child could take advantage of this. We don’t know whether the school would accept them, or whether the family would be involved to make that happen. These are bills to say they are helping struggling kids, but neither the current program [n]or this program actually require[s] that to be the case.”
Under some of the eligibility requirements, the program would be extended to students that are Kansas residents determined to be at-risk, and students who have participated in a form of virtual or hybrid instruction.
Tallman pointed out that it would consist of the majority of public students in the state, who have participated in hybrid learning programs due to the coronavirus pandemic. He spoke at the hearing Monday, providing examples of other states that have education savings account programs in place.
The fiscal note estimates about 10% of Kansas’ student population using the program. A similar effort in Arizona had about 7,000 students take part, despite about 25% of the student population being eligible.
“I tend to think most kids and families are pretty happy with their public school system, and I don’t think there’s a lot of dissatisfaction, but it’s really hard to know,” Tallman said, who estimated about 200,000 students to qualify for the program in the bill.
However, lawmakers estimated eligible students to be closer to around 2,000.
The bill would take base-aid funding usually used for public schools, and use those tax dollars to subsidize private and home schools, or other tutoring and educational services to best serve the child’s needs. If a child qualifies for the program, parents are able to withdraw them from public or charter schools and receive a deposit of public funds into a government-authorized account.
Tallman suggested placing a limit on state funding to the program to eliminate some of the concerns regarding the use of public funds for private and home schools, which don’t have to meet the same standards as public schools to operate in-person classes.
Committee chair, Representative Kristey Williams, R-Augusta, addressed the concerns of opponents, during the hearing. As a supporter of the bill, Williams believes it will benefit students in the state.
“For most people, it doesn’t matter what kind of place they go, it’s just that they are learning,” Rep. Williams said. “It’s just about helping kids, all kids, we need all hands on deck.”
Five states have similar education savings account programs in the U.S. This includes Arizona, which was among the first to implement the program in 2011 to help at-risk students.