Education has dominated the governor’s race between Democratic Gov. Laura Kelly and her Republican challenger, Attorney General Derek Schmidt.
Both sides have grappled with a range of issues, from COVID-19-induced lockdowns in Kansas schools to whether transgender athletes should be able to compete in interscholastic girl sports.
But both campaigns have talked less about what education groups expect to be back on the agenda for 2023: an expansion of state school choice offerings.
In fact, the issue is perhaps the most fundamental difference between the two candidates when it comes to school funding, as both candidates say they support constitutional funding for schools after years of litigation on the matter.
The broader issue remains a flashpoint, as Kelly’s campaign has criticized Schmidt for defending a school funding plan later found inadequate by the Kansas Supreme Court, while Republicans said she deserves little credit for having secured the constitutional level of funding required by the Supreme Court.
The next governor will lead the school funding point at a crucial point, and that includes a potential expansion of school choice.
While legislation to create a major new program that would allow families to use public funds in private schools failed in 2021 after lobbying from public schools and their allies, the issue will almost certainly resurface in 2023.
Whether it can become law depends on who sleeps in the governor’s mansion.
“We’re a little surprised (it wasn’t discussed further),” said Leah Fliter, director of government relations at the Kansas Association of School Boards. “I think there were just so many other issues discussed, some of which are essential issues and some of which may not be. But you know, maybe now…we’re going to have this conversation.”
How do Laura Kelly and Derek Schmidt feel about choosing a school?
The argument over whether Kansas students are performing adequately academically — and what should be done about it — is not new.
In 2021, however, the Conservatives proposed a controversial response to what they believed had been a drop in government assessment performance: education savings accounts.
A tool used nationally in eight states, ESAs allow families to take public per-student funding that would normally go to their local school and use it for private school tuition alongside other school-related expenses.
Not every student would have been suitable. Only those identified as at-risk by their current school district could qualify for funding — although that would still require thousands of students that would drain $23 million from public schools.
More:After a dramatic debate, Kansas lawmakers fire up school choice expansion
The bill eventually fell through after a dramatic Senate vote and didn’t make much headway in 2022 as proponents instead focused on allowing open enrollment in every Kansas school district.
Kelly and Schmidt offer different approaches to this topic.
In a statement, Schmidt made no commitment to support the education savings account proposal and did not specifically mention school choice, but said he will “focus on putting children and parents first in education and empowering parents.” , to ensure that each child receives the education best suited to them or their own needs, regardless of a family’s income or zip code.”
“How best to achieve that will require working with parents, educators and legislators, and I look forward to those conversations in January,” Schmidt said.
Kelly, meanwhile, has said she does not support the ESA proposal.
“It depends on what you mean by school choice,” Kelly said in an interview last year. “If you mean diverting taxpayers’ money to private schools, yes, I’m not and never have been interested in that.”
And Kelly also raised another concern shared by public schools, that by adopting ESAs, the state would risk violating the Kansas Supreme Court’s funding mandate.
The governor signed the 2022 education budget, which included an open enrollment option. While the implementation date was pushed back at the behest of her office, the measure was widely planned by educational groups.
She also signed a measure to expand a government program that provides tax credits for donations to private and church school scholarship programs.
More:The Kansas K-12 funding debate is ending for 2022. But public school advocates are asking — at what cost?
Conservatives argue test results point to the need for new initiatives
But conservative, pro-school constituencies and lawmakers have continued to point to learning loss in the pandemic era as a driver for the need for change.
Schmidt has made Kelly-initiated school closures a key focus of the campaign, saying Kelly was the first governor in the country to close schools in the 2019-20 school year, despite the majority of states ultimately implementing similar policies.
“The school closures have caused tremendous damage to so many of our children and strong support is needed to repair that damage,” Schmidt said.
A majority of states, including Kansas, have seen notable declines in their National Assessment of Educational Progress scores, the biannual assessment of fourth- and eighth-graders nationwide in math and English.
A quarter of fourth graders did worse in math and 40% of students did worse in English, a drop of three and six points respectively. Of eighth graders, 39% were worse in math, a 10-point drop, and a third were at the same level in English, a 7-point drop.
More:Kansas’ national reading, math scores fall to some of the lowest on record
The broad consensus at the national level was that the results reflected the learning loss that occurred during the COVID-19 pandemic.
“It’s going to be a couple of years before we can change that,” Education Commissioner Randy Watson said. “Every state is there. We don’t like it, but we have to react quite aggressively.”
Fierce debates about student achievement are not new.
In Kansas, Republicans have for years targeted efforts by the Kansas State Department of Education to strengthen students’ social or social skills, although officials argue that this has not come at the expense of academic instruction.
They have also pointed to stagnant state assessment results prior to the pandemic and are skeptical about the benefits that more money has brought, though schools have argued the increased funding only really kicked in just before the COVID-19 pandemic hit.
Proponents of ESAs or similar mechanisms say they represent a way to ensure access to private schools regardless of a student’s income level. Public schools, the argument goes, would respond by increasing tuition for fear of losing students.
Sen. Molly Baumgardner, R-Louisburg, chair of the Senate Education Committee, said parents in their district who have students with dyslexia wanted to send their child to a specialized private program in Johnson County, but they lack the money to do so.
“What I’m hearing from parents is that we’re looking at … post-child funding,” she said.
“There will be a discussion of … school choice regardless of who the governor is.”
Public schools and their allies have long argued that school choice is a misnomer, since private schools do not have a mandate to admit all students and can reject applicants, even those with ESAs.
They have also disputed the notion that private schools automatically outperform their public counterparts – arguing that students in most counties in the state have access to few, if any, private options. This has even made rural Republicans skeptical about the need for ESAs.
“We can talk about worrying about kids and worrying about test results,” said Fliter, the KASB lobbyist. “But it’s really not about achievement, it’s about making money for nonprofit schools and nonprofits.”
However, educational savings accounts or similar policies are expected to be a major topic of discussion again in 2023.
“There will be a discussion about the so-called school choice, regardless of who the governor is,” Fliter said.
Baumgardner agreed but said lawmakers would be cautious about what form such a measure might take.
More:Topeka neighborhood could get more than $3 million. Here are the projects being considered.
One proposal could include the option for parents who left public schools during the COVID-19 pandemic to access funds. And it remains unclear who might lead the program, as previous proposals would have placed oversight of the ESAs in the state Treasury Office.
Treasurer Lynn Rogers, a Democrat, is also on the ballot on Nov. 8, running against Republican Steven Johnson and Libertarian Steve Roberts. Testifying on an ESA proposal earlier this year, Rogers pointed to the potential for high administrative costs and regulatory difficulties that could arise.
Lawmakers must be careful not to rush an idea that would present logistical hurdles for parents once operational, Baumgardner said.
“It would be great to say, ‘OK, that amount of money goes where the parents decide for each child,'” she said. “But if you don’t have a way to bring it to them and give it to them, then you’ve bitten off more than you can chew. As a state, you have an empty opportunity, if you will.”