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“School Choice” is the goal of the culture war for Kansas lawmakers

TOPEKA, Kan. — Top Republican lawmakers in Kansas are focusing on helping conservative parents remove their children from public schools over what they are taught about gender and sexuality rather than pursuing a version of what critics are calling the Florida law” Don’t say gay.”

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

The introduction comes as funding and tuition plans for public schools have become hot topics for conservative politicians nationwide. Iowa lawmakers passed similar legislation last week, and at least a dozen states are considering similar legislation.

Funneling public funds to private schools isn’t a new idea, but it has revived since the outbreak of the coronavirus pandemic, in part due to parental concerns about masks and vaccines. The issue has also been driven by opposition to the way some schools conduct classes on topics such as gender, sexuality and race.

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

When the Republican-controlled Kansas legislature opened its annual session earlier this month, GOP leaders planned to address what Senate Speaker Ty Masterson called the “sexualized awakening agenda” in the way which public schools discuss sexuality and gender identity.

Masterson, a Wichita-area Republican, said he plans to pursue a measure that clarifies what schools can teach or discuss about these topics by class level, just like the Florida law enacted last year.

But last week, when asked about such a measure, Masterson seemed to veer off course: “We’re talking about school choice.” He told the Associated Press on Monday, “Probably the only way to handle that ultimately, right, is to have parenting choices.”

The proposal before the House is the brainchild of K-12 Expenditure Committee Chair, State Representative Kristey Williams, another Republican from the Wichita area. He said he hopes to hold hearings next week.

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

Kansas already gives income tax credits for gifts to funds that provide scholarships so academically at-risk students can attend private schools, which is a program Republican lawmakers want to expand. But in the US, conservative lawmakers argue that tax dollars should be tied to students, not “systems.”

Williams also called her plan “the perfect answer” for parents frustrated with what public schools teach about gender, sexuality or the influence of racism on US history. Currently, she said, parents cannot switch schools unless they can afford the extra costs.

“But with choice, it gives the freedom to choose the best and most appropriate education, the best and most appropriate kind of environment,” he said.

Public education groups and Democratic lawmakers argue that such proposals siphon money from state K-12 schools for the benefit 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 seeking to dismantle public education.

State Representative Jarrod Ousley, a Kansas City-area Democrat whose wife serves on a local school board, said public schools help build communities.

“This is the fabric of our nation,” Ousley said.

Democratic Gov. Laura Kelly strongly opposes a plan like the one presented in the House. Her major education initiative projects a 61 percent increase over five years in spending on public K-12 programs for special needs students.

Republicans have a legislative majority that would allow them to override a Kelly veto, though GOP leaders have had a hard time keeping Republicans united on education issues.

Meanwhile, private and homeschooling advocates say parents want more choices because they haven’t been happy with distance education during the coronavirus pandemic.

Fallon Love, a Wichita resident who manages finances for restaurants in multiple states, enrolled her 7-year-old son as a second grader at Urban Preparatory Academy, run by Wichita’s nondenominational Christian Faith Center.

Love said she enjoys the “intimate” learning environment of the academy and feels her son is learning positive character traits as he gets opportunities like a trip last week to the Statehouse for a school picks rally.

“There are many parents who are not lucky to be able to decide where their children go,” he said after the rally. “Everyone should have the right to decide where they want their children to 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 Iowa’s allows parents to avoid “crazy stuff” in public schools. After the demonstration, he said he meant both violence, such as fighting, and issues such as which bathrooms and locker rooms transgender students can use.

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


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