The state legislature struck down a bill early Friday that a local education official said could have adverse effects on Emporia Public Schools.
BillFormerly known as the Sunflower Education Equity Act, it would have used state dollars to fund private education. Supporters of the bill say it could help Kansas families have more choices about where their children go to school, while opponents have argued that the bill would have negative effects on public education and cause unregulated schools to get state funding.
The amended bill was originally intended to provide about $5,000 in state funds for eligible private school students, and the amended bill would provide eligible public school students with an annual $1,000 grant, paid through COVID-19 Relief Funding, to help reduce educational costs. Under the new program, known as the Kansas Education Enrichment Program, private school students will still receive “annually an amount equal to 95 percent of BASE aid for all eligible full-time student accounts or a pro rata amount for eligible part-time student accounts,” the conference committee report states.
$253 Emporia Public Schools board member Art Gutierrez said he believes the bill would be bad for Kansas students and could lead to misuse of public funds.
“The lack of accountability has ripened to commit fraud with public tax money,” Gutierrez said. “…in Kansas, public education is subject to spending audits every year. Each of these audits, regardless of whether completed by the state or private auditors brought in by legislators, come to the same conclusion, and that is the value the state of Kansas receives for the money it We spend it, and it’s a great investment.”
Gutierrez said he believes the bill does the exact opposite and “goes against what I think most Kansans want and deserve.” He also has concerns about the legislature’s failure to fully fund private education expenditures for years, despite its commitment to do so. The state has not fully funded private education since 2011.
He said, “The Kansas legislature says it doesn’t have the money to meet that commitment, but they’ve figured out an additional $150 million in tax dollars to divert to private education and home schools without any accountability.” “The state should fully fund private education before even considering a bill like this.”
But what does that mean for $253? It could mean less funding to improve the school system, from increasing teachers to curricula and more. It could also mean staffing adjustments or even school closures.
“With a lack of accountability, the potential for misuse of funds is high. Children will then be sent back to public education minus funding or removed from the system unattended,” Gutierrez said. “We recently completed a teaching/teaching staff study. We have a preferred ratio for the number of students in a class. If enrollment drops, we may need a staffing adjustment. We had a conversation about closing the school building the community told us loudly that they didn’t want to see it. If we lose registration due to this invoice, all options will need to be considered. Responsible use of tax money is a huge responsibility and requires us to have difficult conversations.”
The issue split between Kansan and lawmakers, with debates and votes falling roughly evenly on both sides. Locally, 17th District Senator Jeff Longbine has voted against the law twice, stating in a legislative debate in March that it would help wealthy families more than it would public education.
“I have a longstanding support for public education,” Longbin said. “I think our public education, given the challenges they face, is doing a great job and taking money from public education to send it to, I would call very wealthy families in Johnson County to send their kids to a private school, maybe not the best.” [for] Public education for the long term.
Mark Schreiber, the representative for District 60, who also attended the conversation, said he shares Longbin’s concerns. Schreiber also voted against the bill when it came before the Kansas House of Representatives in March and again on Thursday.
Instead of financial aid for private schools, Schreiber said, the state should focus on greater early childhood education.
“Parents have existing ways,” Schreiber said, “that if they don’t want to go to public schools, they can go to private schools, and they can go to school at home.” “But the way this law has been set up, in my opinion, affects accountability, how children learn and how they are assessed.”
While public schools are required to meet federal, state, and local education policies, accreditation is optional for private schools and only accredited private schools are required to “teach subjects and areas of instruction approved by the Kansas State Board of Education,” according to the US Department of Education. However, the bill still has support at the state and local levels.
Eric Smith, Representative for District 76, who voted for the law in March and again Friday morning, said a critical factor for him was the high levels of at-risk students performing below grade level in Kansas schools.
The National Assessment of Educational Progress, or the nation’s report card, determines student performance through assessments given to fourth- and eighth-grade students in United States public schools. In Kansas, fourth graders’ math and reading scores dropped four points from 2019 to 2022. For eighth graders, math scores dropped by 10 points, while reading dropped by seven points.
“I’ve spoken to a group in Emporia who are very supportive of SB 83 and then there are people who are very much against SB 83, just in this community I understand that,” Smith said at the Legislative Dialogue in March. “…I’m not going to argue with people and tell them they’re wrong for supporting teachers. I love teachers, … In the end, it’s not about saving schools, it’s about saving students.”
Local accredited Sacred Heart Catholic School Sacred Heart Catholic School did not respond to multiple requests for comment on the bill. Emporia Christian School, a local non-accredited private school, declined to comment.
At $253, Gutierrez said he agrees student achievement should increase and says the district is working toward that end.
“We’ve bought a new, rigorous maths curriculum and are working on doing the same for English and language arts,” he said. “What I would also say is that bypassing the legislature and placing more demands on our teachers and staff does not help our students but harms them. For public education to truly thrive, we need the support of everyone including the state legislature.”