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Public education reform doesn’t begin by aiding private schools

By Andy Taylor, Editor, Montgomery County (Kan.) Chronicle

The following is purely make-believe; so, pretend with us.

* * * *

The State of Kansas makes an annual allotment of $10 million to the City of Coffeyville to supplement its tax revenue. The state’s money is used for multiple purposes — from keeping cops on the streets, to filling potholes, to keeping tall grass and weeds mowed on neglected blocks.

State leaders aren’t big fans of giving money to cities like Coffeyville. They mock the workers, sneer at the police for being too soft on criminals, and force city commissioners to justify the use of their spent dollars through annual audits and accountability reports.

However, next year’s allotment smells different. The jaded state leaders are telling Coffeyville that they must cough up $2 million of its annual allotment and give it to the City of Liberty, Coffeyville’s neighbor to the north. Liberty which never receives state funds because of its itty-bitty size.

Obviously, $2 million is viewed as a gold mine to a small hamlet like Liberty.

But, to Coffeyville, giving up that much dough would cripple their services — at a time when the state is putting a tighter squeeze in larger cities and the population is getting smaller.

Generosity is fine, Coffeyville leaders believe. But it rankles the Coffeyville taxpayers. That’s because state lawmakers are making the transfer of funds easy for Liberty. The City of Liberty won’t have to conduct annual audits or present a profit-loss statement like Coffeyville does each year.

In fact, the State of Kansas is almost acting like it’s turning a blind eye to how Liberty will use its money.

The unfairness is shocking.

As Coffeyville residents begin to howl, they realize their concerns fall on deafened ears in Topeka.

* * * *

The above scenario is a total farce, of course.

However, the situation falls right in line with the intent of a school voucher bill now pending in the Kansas Legislature.

In simple terms: House Bill 2218 allows the state of Kansas to divert funds devoted for public education as vouchers. Those vouchers can then be used by parents of schools students to pay their child’s tuition to a private school or a home-based school.

There are few safeguards in the bill that will make sure the dollars are used appropriately for education. Nor, is there a system in the mix to determine if the money is spent wisely in private hands.

Yes, lawmakers claim the bill has the boilerplate safeguards for financial oversight and management, including a legislatively-appointed panel to determine if fraud or abuse occur. Of course it will. And, it will be heavy, if the legislative panel even bothers to pursue those violations.

The push for vouchers has reached a deafening roar in Topeka as a pro-conservative legislature attempts to shove its collective middle finger in the face of public education.

Instead of trying to reform public education, they are trying to strip it down and give the money to schools that traditionally have not had to play by the same rules of accountability as their publicly-funded peers.

Private schools can open and shut the doors on students based on their religious ideology. Public schools can’t.

Private schools can choose to disallow students with mental and physical handicaps. Public schools can’t.

Private schools do not take the federal dollars through multiple education programs — from breakfast and lunch programs to career and technical education. Public schools rely on those dollars from Uncle Sam to feed kids and open doors of opportunity for students who seek a career pathway.

Since the inception of time (and based on case law and constitutional powers), public dollars have largely been withheld from private education for obvious reasons.

Now, the paradigm has shifted 180 degrees. And, it feels almost as if the Kansas Legislature is ready to write a blank check to private schools and home-based schools with public tax dollars.

We have nothing against private education, nor home-based schools. Many of them are excellent. They provide options for parents and their children.

However, in a rural climate like Montgomery County, the educational journey for a majority of the population is largely limited to public schools.

A vastly shrinking population, as evident in Montgomery County based on the 2020 U.S. Census, combined with several decades of an eroding tax base has tightened the clamps on rural schools’ financial lifelines. That’s why public dollars are critical for small school districts, where the loss of anywhere from 10 to 30 students to a voucher-funded private school system would be crippling.

That’s why the euphoria around vouchers needs to be quelled.

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