State board holds off on school vouchers decision

Education commissioner says private schools could help close achievement gap

? Two conflicting views of public schools battled Tuesday to a no-decision before the Kansas State Board of Education.

After more than five hours of sometimes heated debate, the Education Board postponed until next month whether to recommend that the Legislature adopt private school vouchers and expansion of charter schools.

“There’s a lot of information that was given that we have to assimilate,” said board chairman Steve Abrams, R-Arkansas City. Abrams declined to speculate on whether he had a 6-4 majority to send the measures to lawmakers.

On one side was Education Commissioner Bob Corkins pushing for a package that would allow certain students to use tax monies to attend private schools, and liberalizing the ability for partially deregulated charter schools to start.

The moves would help close the achievement gap between minority and white students, “which we have a moral and legal responsibility to close,” Corkins said.

But opponents, including dozens of public school administrators who packed the meeting room, said the measures were an attack on public schools and would hurt the very students that supporters said they wanted to help. They said private schools would “cream-skim” the best students, while not having to abide by expensive federal and state regulations.

In a tense exchange, board member Janet Waugh, a Democrat from Kansas City, Kan., asked Corkins whether he would change his proposal to make it so that private schools would have to accept every eligible student and would be required to comply with the same standards as public schools.

Corkins answered that he wouldn’t. She asked him why, and he said because no private school would participate under those conditions.

Plan components

The proposals include:

¢ Giving “scholarships” to attend private schools to students who receive free or reduced-cost lunches, or score below proficient on statewide tests for two consecutive years. Another proposal would provide scholarships to students who are gifted or have learning disabilities. The funds to pay for these students to go to private schools would come from tax dollars and equal the amount the state pays to educate the student in a public school. The private schools would not have to be accredited by the state.

¢ Allowing expansion of charter schools through an appeal to the State Board of Education if a local school district disapproves of opening a charter school. Charter schools generally are established for a specific purpose and are not limited by some of the regulations governing traditional public schools. Public tax money also would be used to send students to charter schools.

Although the room was packed with opponents of the proposals, some testified in favor.

Little River Supt. Milt Dougherty said with tests showing that 30 percent to 50 percent of students failing to reach proficiency, “our kids aren’t broken, but our system is.”

But Waugh responded that Dougherty’s remarks were unfair to every teacher in the state.

Greg Forster, a senior fellow with the Indianapolis-based Milton and Rose Friedman Foundation, said vouchers would help public schools by making them compete for students.

“Public schools are a monopoly system with little incentive to improve,” Forster said.

Mixed results

But other superintendents said that Kansas public schools were doing a good job and that vouchers and charter schools had mixed results at best.

John Morton, superintendent of the Newton school district, said vouchers were “an old answer to an old question.”

Earlier, Gov. Kathleen Sebelius criticized the proposals, saying they were trendy years ago, produced mixed results and never caught on in Kansas.

“What’s interesting to me is that in some ways the board is focusing on old news,” Sebelius said.

“I’m hoping that what we can do is move forward and look at what is going to make the most effective public school system possible … not only in Kansas but in the country,” Sebelius said.