Capitol Update: Rep. Jarrod Ousley argues new education bills undermine SMSD and other public schools

Democratic Rep. Jarrod Ousley of Merriam says a raft of bills passed out of a key House committee last week aim to either "make it easier for students to go to private or home school, so as to provide the state a means to avoid responsibility for the full cost of an education, or [they] create new liabilities for [public school] districts." File image.

Each week during the 2022 Kansas legislative session, we will provide Shawnee Mission area legislators the opportunity to share their thoughts about what’s happening in the state capitol.

Below is this week’s submission from Democratic Rep. Jarrod Ousley Woodard of Kansas House District 24, which covers Merriam and parts of Mission and Overland Park. 

Over the past year there has been a significant, well-documented, push by far-right extremists against public education, through the “anti-critical race theory” campaign that began with the anti-tax Manhattan Institute’s Chris Rufo.

Rufo wrote on his Twitter page in March 2021, “We have successfully frozen their brand – ‘critical race theory’ – into the public conversation and are steadily driving up negative perceptions.”

This is a strategy as old as the Brown v. Board of education decision and dovetails with efforts to redirect public dollars to private schools.

Vouchers and public schools

After the Brown decision in the 1950s, many Southern states established publicly funded private school voucher schemes to navigate around court ordered integration. Private schools are not bound by civil rights protections required in public schools. Research by the Civil Rights Project at Harvard University shows that the segregation patterns for private schools, particularly at private religious schools, are more racially segregated than public schools.

Additionally, children with disabilities have certain rights in public schools under the Individuals with Disabilities Education Act (IDEA), which provides the rights to due process and IEPs, but IDEA doesn’t apply to private schools.

Private schools — unlike public schools — are not mandated to offer services such as speech or occupational therapy, and may deny students, whereas public schools educate each child in their community. Private schools also don’t offer the same pay or protections to their staff as public schools do, leaving their educators vulnerable if they teach uncomfortable truths to retaliation or dismissal.

Vouchers for private schools come in three forms:

  1. traditional voucher programs, where states provide a certain amount of public education funding to put towards private school tuition;
  2. Education Savings Accounts, where states take state dollars and place them in individual accounts for parents to put the money towards private school tuition or to cover homeschooling costs; and
  3. Tax Credit Scholarships, where states give businesses or individuals dollar for dollar tax credits to donate to a “scholarship” organization which distributes the funds to qualifying students at their private school.

No matter the form of the voucher, voucher programs reduce the amount of money in the state’s general fund which would otherwise be available to fund public education.

As we have seen in the last ten years, when Kansas’ general fund budget shrinks, the result is funding cuts to public schools. Vouchers also do not cover the entire cost of tuition, and cost is key to understanding the voucher push. It is cheaper for the state to pay for a voucher which only covers a portion of the costs of a child’s education, leaving the remainder of the cost to be shouldered by parents.

Americans for Prosperity, the Kansas Policy Institute, the Manhattan Institute, the American Legislative Exchange Council and the Heritage Foundation have a few things in common.

They advocate for policies that defund public services like public education so as to reduce taxes for the wealthiest and divert dollars to private entities for profit.

Vouchers fit all three goals: they create opportunities to redirect public dollars privately, they do not cover the entire cost of educating a child for a year, and they reduce special education funding expenses as private schools are not obligated to provide special education services, thus reducing government spending, and allowing tax cuts.

As with the Tax Credit Scholarship model that passed in Kansas, boilerplate bills for Education Savings Accounts can be found on the American Legislative Exchange Council’s website.

Why is this relevant in Kansas? As the public education formula finally approaches constitutional levels of restored funding, attention has been brought to the state’s failure to meet its statutory obligation to fund special education costs.

Stat law (K.S.A. Section 72-3422) provides that the state shall pay for 92% of the excess costs of special education, but there is no enforcement mechanism for public school districts or for Kansans to enforce this mandate.

The gap from what Kansas law requires the state to fund, and what actually funds is $341 million dollars a year. For SMSD, this is roughly $8.5 million dollars a year. Public schools, which meet federal disability law requirements, cover the costs of special education services out of their operational budgets and then apply for reimbursement for whatever amount the Kansas Legislature has appropriated for that year.

Currently, the budget includes the proposal to fund 70.8% of special education costs, or $520,380,818, an amount that is the same as last year but has the impact of being less of a percentage funded then the previous year, as the costs for special education have increased but the proposed funding has not.

The Kansas Board of Education, recognizing that Kansas has billions of dollars in surplus funds this year, requested additional funding for special ed, with a proposal to reach the statutorily required 92% over five years.

Current education bills up for debate

This is the background context that assists in understanding the push for the bills that we have seen in the House’s K-12 Budget Committee.

Last Thursday alone, the committee heard and the majority passed out the following:

  • HB 2511 allowing students who do not attend public schools to participate in public school athletics. This also contained HB 2514, allowing part-time enrollment in public school.
  • HB 2615 authorizing school districts to provide alternative credit opportunities. This also contained HB 2550 creating Education Savings Account vouchers and HB 2553 which allows K-12 students to transfer to attend any district regardless of address.
  • HB 2662 requiring “transparency portals,” removing protections from districts from parental lawsuits concerning “porn” and removing districts’ ability to non-renew the contract of an educator who refuses to teach something against their belief (the so-called “Parent’s Bill of Rights.”) This also contained HB 2513 requiring districts to seek consent for testing immediately prior to the testing.

If one can keep in mind the three goals of the extremist right, reduce financial obligations to allow for reduced taxes and to shift public dollars to private institutions, then the foregoing bills start to make sense.

Most of the bills fall into one of two categories.

Either the bill makes it easier for students to go to private or home school, so as to provide the state a means to avoid responsibility for the full cost of an education, or it creates new liabilities for districts.

These liabilities are created when districts or educators teach the truth and provide accurate information on difficult subjects (or when a teacher refuses to teach the truth), or creates additional liability through cumbersome administrative barriers (seeking consent for testing immediately prior, as opposed to getting consent at the beginning of the year). None of the bills heard in our budget committee addressed the shortfall of dollars going to special education reimbursement costs.

Impacts on bigger districts in metro areas

The big bill though is HB 2615, which in its initial form codified what most districts do already, allowing students to obtain credit through work study or duel enrollment programs.

Then the Education Savings Account voucher bill was added to it. This Education Savings Account voucher plan places the $4,846 base state aid per pupil amount allocated to districts for every student enrolled in their schools instead into an Education Savings Account to go towards private school tuition at an accredited private school.

I asked our legislative research staff to pull the numbers on accredited private schools in Kansas, and this is what they provided me.

There are 286 school districts in Kansas.

Of those district, 57 school districts in Kansas have an accredited private school within their boundary lines and 229 school districts — or 80% of Kansas districts — DO NOT have an accredited private school within their boundary lines and rely solely on Kansas’ excellent public schools to educate their students.

Of the 20% of districts that do have an accredited private school, they are predominantly concentrated in metropolitan areas, many with significant wealth, many with more diverse populations then the average District in Kansas:

  • USD 259 Wichita has 20
  • USD 512 Shawnee Mission has 15
  • USD 501 Topeka has 7
  • USD 500 KCK has 7
  • USD 233 Olathe has 6

The majority of districts that have an accredited private school, only have one.

Only 14 Districts, or 5% of all school districts in Kansas have both an accredited primary and accredited secondary private school within their geographic location.

The funding impacts for the districts with the highest concentrations of accredited private schools — Wichita, SMSD, Topeka, KCK and Olathe — are huge.

The districts immediately hit hardest are those larger numbers of accredited private schools within them, as their enrollment rates will drop, with a directly correlating decrease in funding for those districts.

SMSD is the second most at-risk in the state for loss of funds, as it has the second highest number of accredited private schools, second only to Wichita.

The other 80% of districts without an accredited private school directly competing with their district are still significantly impacted.

As state funds go to pay for private schools in the areas where private schools are concentrated, predominantly in metropolitan areas, state budget funds for public education for all districts are reduced. This plan essentially defunds the overwhelming majority of school districts in the state, so as to increase the number of students attending schools without special education funding mandates or civil rights protections.

And it leaves individual families making up the difference in cost for the education. The average private school tuition in Kansas is $8,083 per year in 2022, far more than the $4, 846 in per pupil base state aid.

Attacks on public education

In the last few weeks, the House K-12 Budget Committee has attacked and attempted to discredit each of the five districts with significant numbers of accredited private schools, using the anti-CRT language pushed by the far right, including attacks against SMSD.

The strategy then is clear. Attack public schools in a specifically volatile way based on race or LGBTQ issues, so as to pave the way for vouchers, which can be used at private schools in those metropolitan areas that do not have the federal mandates to fund special education or protect civil rights, evading Kansas’ responsibilities to do so.

The decreased funding to the largest districts in the state, destabilizes them and subjects them to additional attacks, in conjunction with increased administrative burdens and liabilities. Finally, the increased use of vouchers comes at the direct expense of all districts in the state, negatively impacting the 80% of districts that rely solely on public education to meet the needs of their children.

The only people who benefit from this are wealthy corporations and organizations running anti-tax foundations that don’t want to pay their taxes.

The vast majority of constituent communications to members of the K-12 committee this week were in opposition to these bills. We received hundreds of emails from concerned parents and patrons who want public dollars to remain with public schools. Please continue to reach out as these bills make their way to the house floor; it is still possible to stop them.

As always, it is my privilege to serve my constituents in House District 24.

I can be reached by email at jarrod.ousley@house.ks.gov, by phone at 785-296-7366 and on my official Facebook page.