Kansas’s long-admired K-12 system is being subjected to a systematic effort to dismantle it and to shift money currently being spent on public schools to private and religious institutions, a group of three legislators told the attendees of a MainStream Coalition forum Tuesday.
With more than 200 people packed into the Colonial Church basement to hear the discussion, Reps. Melissa Rooker, a Republican, and Nancy Lusk and Jarrod Ousley, Democrats, painted a picture of a legislature controlled by anti-tax conservatives who aim to chip away at the school system in hopes of reducing the financial burden K-12 education places on the state’s budget.
With more than 50 percent of state funds going to higher ed and K-12 schools, education makes an attractive target for politicians focused on reducing the size of government, said Rooker. The state’s continued inability to meet its revenue projections — the $53 million shortfall from February announced yesterday prompted Gov. Sam Brownback to cut $17 million from state colleges — is not seen as a troubling issue to many of those in power, she argued.
“I’d like to maybe frame the discussion around…whether we have leadership who believes this is a problem, or whether this is really their opportunity to put into effect the shrinking of government,” she said.
Asked by moderator Mark Desetti whether legislators were “just looking to privatize the education system,” all three panelists said they believed privatization was the ultimate goal of the conservative majority. Rooker noted that to afford the tax cuts put into place in 2012 and 2013, the state will have to reduce the amount it spends on public eduction.
“By shifting the burden away from the state to the private sector, you reduce the number of employees the KPERS system is responsible for, and you can afford to cut taxes by reducing the overall spending on education. It’s pure and simple,” she said.
Ousley said motivations may go further than that, with outside entities looking to make a profit off education in the state.
“There’s a lot of money spent in education, in educating our children. And nobody is capitalizing on that,” he said. “If you want to privatize something, you’ve got somebody who wants to earn money on this. I mean, it’s not just the fact that they don’t want to pay taxes. There’s a lot of money available to make a profit on. And right now that’s unavailable because it’s a public system.”
All three legislators pointed to the scholarships bill currently alive in the legislature as an example of an attempt to reroute public education money to private institutions. Through the program, businesses and other taxpayers would be able to claim a tax credit for providing tuition money to private or religious schools. Because the benefit comes in the form of a tax credit and not a voucher directly from the state government, the bill avoids the Kansas constitution’s prohibition on state money being spent on religious schools.
“It’s a money laundering scheme, folks,” Rooker said of the system.
Lusk noted where many of the recipients of scholarships under the first version of the bill passed last session lived in parts of Johnson County known for strong public schools.
“The addresses like Prairie Village, Leawood, southern Johnson County,” she said. “I guess the assumption would be that all the public schools around them must be failing. I don’t really think that’s the case.”