‘School choice’ is culture-war focus for Kansas lawmakers this session | News, Sports, Jobs

John Hanna/Associated Press

Private and home school students, their parents and advocates crowd the second floor of the Kansas Statehouse for a rally to give parents taxpayer money earmarked for public schools and allow them to spend it on education as they please, Wednesday, May 25. January, in Topka.

TOPEKA — Leading Republican lawmakers in Kansas are focused on helping conservative parents remove their children from public schools for teaching about gender and sexuality, rather than pursuing a version of what critics say is Florida’s “Don’t Say Gay” law to name.

A proposal to allow parents to use state tax dollars to pay for private or home schooling was available online Tuesday, a day after a House of Representatives committee on K-12 spending introduced the measure.

The introduction comes as funding and curriculum for public schools have become hot topics for conservative politicians across the country.

The Iowa legislature passed similar legislation last week, and at least a dozen states are considering similar legislation.

Diverting public money into private schools isn’t a new idea, but it has gotten a breath of fresh air in the wake of the coronavirus pandemic, partly due to parental concerns about masks and vaccines. The issue has also been fueled by opposition to the way some schools conduct classes on issues such as gender, sexuality and race.

Critics of the bills say they drain much-needed money from public schools.

As the Republican-controlled Kansas Legislature opened its annual session earlier this month, GOP leaders planned to address what Senate President Ty Masterson called “the sexed guard agenda,” in which public schools discuss sexuality and gender identity.

Masterson, a Wichita-area Republican, said he wants to pursue a measure that would determine what schools could teach or discuss on these topics by grade level, similar to the law enacted in Florida last year.

But last week, when asked about such a measure, Masterson appeared to change tack: “We’re talking about school choice.” He told The Associated Press on Monday, “Probably the only way we’re going to deal with this in the end is right to have choices for the parents.”

The proposal tabled in the House of Representatives is the brainchild of K-12 Spending Committee Chairperson Kristey Williams, another Republican from the Wichita area. She said she hopes to hold hearings next week.

Her bill would allow parents to apply to set up a state-sponsored education savings account for each of their children, with the state setting aside the current amount of its basic per-student grant for public schools. That’s $5,103 for the 2023-24 school year, an amount that would increase as the state ramps up its aid. The parents would get 95% and the state would use the rest to cover administrative costs.

Kansas already grants income tax credits for donations to funds that award scholarships to enable academically challenged students to attend private schools, a program the Republican legislature wants to expand. But across the US, conservative lawmakers are arguing that taxpayers’ money should be tied to students, not “systems.”

Williams also called her plan “the perfect answer” for parents frustrated by what public schools teach about gender, sexuality, or the impact of racism in US history.

Currently, she said, parents cannot switch schools unless they can afford the extra cost.

“But with choice there is 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 argue that such proposals would take money away from the state’s 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.

Rep. Jarrod Ousley, a Kansas City-area Democrat whose wife is a member of a local school board, said public schools help build communities.

“That’s the fabric of our nation,” Ousley said.

Democratic Gov. Laura Kelly is staunchly opposed to a plan like the one presented in the House of Representatives. Her major education initiative plans to increase spending on public K-12 programs for special needs students by 61% over five years.

Republicans have legislative supermajorities that would allow them to override a Kelly veto, though GOP leaders have found it difficult to keep Republicans united on education issues.

Meanwhile, advocates of private and home schooling argue parents want more choice because they have been unhappy with distance learning during the coronavirus pandemic.

Fallon Love, a Wichita resident who handles multi-state restaurant finances, has enrolled her 7-year-old son as a second grader at the Urban Preparatory Academy, administered by Wichita’s non-denominational Christian Faith Center.

Love said she likes the academy’s “intimate” learning environment and feels her son is learning positive character traits while being given opportunities like a trip to the Statehouse for a school election rally last week.

“There are many parents who are not fortunate enough to be able to decide where their children go,” she said after the rally. “Everyone should have the right to choose where their child should go to get the best education.”

Wade Moore, one of the church’s bishops, told the crowd at the rally that a school choice law like the one in Iowa allows parents to avoid “crazy stuff” in public schools. After the rally, he said he meant violence, such as fighting, as well as issues such as which bathrooms and locker rooms transgender students can use.

“A lot of these things are forced on children and families,” he said after the rally.

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