After dramatic debate, Kansas lawmakers shoot down school choice expansion

Andrew Bahl
Topeka Capital-Journal

After a dramatic series of twists and turns, a major school choice expansion in Kansas was shot down Friday in the Kansas Senate, with legislators now forced to find a path forward on funding the state's public schools.

The legislation narrowly passed the Kansas House on Friday but hit a snag in the Kansas Senate. Ultimately, supporters were unable to overcome skepticism from moderate Republicans over a sweeping new school choice program allowing families to use public per-pupil funding for private school tuition.

Democrats and some Republicans have argued the structure of Senate Bill 175 will bust the state’s budget and amounts to “playing games” by tying the budget for the Kansas State Department of Education to the controversial school choice expansion favored by conservatives.

Gene Suellentrop nearly the deciding vote

The debate had another layer of drama, after embattled Senate Majority Leader Gene Suellentrop, R-Wichita, returned to Topeka on Friday to cast what was thought to be the deciding vote.

More:Documents: Gene Suellentrop taunted and challenged KHP officer; blood alcohol level twice the legal limit

Suellentrop is under fire after an alleged wrong-way drunken driving incident last month. He returned home to his Wichita district, two-and-a-half hours away from Topeka after documents outlining his arrest were made public earlier in the day. That move prompted the vote to be moved to Friday. 

Legislators failed to approve a bill Friday that could have allowed students to access public, per-pupil funds to attend private schools like Manhattan Catholic, pictured here.

Suellentrop was present at the Statehouse on Friday and voted in favor of the bill. But Sen. Robert Olson, R-Olathe, yanked his support, causing the vote to deadlock in a 20-20 tie, meaning the bill is effectively dead.

Senate President Ty Masterson, R-Andover, termed Olson's move as "political gamesmanship."

Olson said his vote came after he read the bill more Friday morning and pushed back on Masterson's comments.

"If someone doesn't want to do what he wants them to do, they're playing political games," Olson told reporters.

Sen. Robert Olson, R-Olathe, was the deciding vote Friday in shooting down controversial legislation that would have expanded school choice offerings in Kansas.

Choice debate rankles Democrats — and some Republicans 

But eight other Republicans in the Senate joined Olson in opposing the bill. Even more members in the House defected to join their Democratic colleagues in voting no.

The most controversial element of the bill is a proposal that would allow parents to use dollars normally routed to schools for a wide range of purposes, including tuition at a private school. 

The base per-pupil aid would instead be deposited in an education savings account. Students who are deemed at-risk by their current school district would be eligible.

Sen. Brenda Dietrich, R-Topeka, was one of those members opposing the bill. A former school superintendent, Dietrich said "we can always do better" in serving students but argued her colleagues should have taken a stronger stand on staking out an independent position on the matter.

"It kind of feels like the House is taking the Senate to the woodshed and is cleaning our clock," she said Thursday night. "I don't appreciate that. Where is our position?" 

Masterson on Thursday blamed Democrats and "liberal Republicans" for the bill's struggle to gain support, although he said the tight vote count wasn't a surprise.

"They really, in my opinion, voted against underprivileged kids and school funding," Masterson said. "But from their perspective, as you heard out there, they believe any parental choice is a bad direction to go, so they vote no."

Rep. Kristey Williams, R-Augusta, speaks on the floor in support of a major expansion of the state's school choice offerings.

Supporters argue status quo needs to change

The Kansas Department of Education does not keep tabs on the number of students who fall under current at-risk guidelines. But Rep. Kristey Williams, R-Augusta, a chief proponent of the legislation said it could be as much as 40% of the 502,000 public school students in the state.

The cost of the proposals has been a key area of concern. Williams estimated 5,000 students will eventually take advantage of the program. Under current school funding levels, that would mean $23 million being diverted away from public schools, although the eventual figure could increase rapidly if more students opt to join.

A separate provision in the bill would expand a state program that offers private businesses a tax credit for donations to bankroll private school scholarships of up to $8,000, rather than directly funding a student's tuition. 

The bill also could have cut funding for schools that implemented remote learning, although a waiver from the state Board of Education could lift that threat. 

Conservatives have argued the legislation lifts up students who are deemed to be falling behind in core subjects, have frequent absences or other issues preventing them to succeed in school.

Money earmarked specifically for at-risk students, much of which has been mandated under a series of court decisions in the past decade, hasn't done enough to move the needle on their achievement, they argue.

"Doing the same thing has not produced different results," said Rep. Brenda Landwehr, R-Wichita. "At what point do you free the children and give them their lives back?"

But school district officials from across the state lobbied members to oppose the bill and Republicans cited their voices as influential in their decision-making process.

"That's who I work for ... and every one of them says it's a Frankenstein bill, it is a bad bill," said Sen. John Doll, R-Garden City.

Policymakers left to chart a way forward on school spending

Sen. Molly Baumgartner, R-Louisburg, said it would be theoretically possible for the contents of SB 175 to be inserted into another piece of legislation and resurrected this session.

But she framed the debate, particularly around the most aggressive school choice proposals, as likely to be one for next year, when the process can require a more deliberate review in the body.

Lawmakers will return in May for what is known as "veto session," when they will tackle their last remaining legislative business — most notably the state budget.

Baumgartner signaled legislators would look to return KSDE spending component to the broader budget bill in the interest of expediency.

"That really is that last train out," she said. "And we need to make sure that we have something that gets up, gets out for school districts."

Conservatives have chafed at a decade's worth of court decisions requiring increased investment in the state's schools. Opponents of the legislation have argued it will land the state back in a legal minefield by diverting funds to private schools.

Mark Tallman, a lobbyist for the Kansas Association of School Boards, said the focus now must be on building a coalition to get an acceptable spending blueprint. 

"Our hope would be we can find a way to go forward, that we can get support (for a bill) that can pass, that the governor can sign and that doesn't have some of the things that we think are the biggest pieces of concern," Tallman said.