Opinion: Proposed bill could put students at risk

In its current state, a bill before the Kansas Legislature to help at-risk students might actually put at-risk students at greater risk.

More opportunities for low-income students who are behind academically are endorsed by nearly everyone. However, problems arise when legislation proposes to award state tax dollars to private enterprise, in this case private schooling.

At this writing, House Bill 2119 has undergone additions and revisions as in HB2067, but the proposed legislation remains designed to increase tax-credit funded scholarships for students designated high-risk by their schools. At the same time, the legislation would allow state tax dollars to be parceled into Education Savings Accounts of approximately $4,500 per year (the base per pupil funding) for high-poverty, under-achieving students who may draw on the funds for private school tuition and other educational needs. Those needs can cover a range of services from transportation to a private school, to textbooks to online learning.

Even though Kansas is known for having strong private schools, when Kansas children will be impacted by any state legislation, it’s best to follow advice of the late President Ronald Reagan and “trust but verify.”

Among its many flaws, one significantly troubling aspect of the legislation is oversight of private schools. Kansas has approximately 130 registered accredited and 29 unaccredited private schools. Unaccredited private schools have been eliminated from the legislation as it currently reads.

Accredited private schools follow guidelines set by the Kansas State Board of Education and file brief yearly reports. However, the current proposed legislation assigns no additional oversight for the new ESA program from the Kansas State Department of Education.

Instead, the state treasurer is assigned the responsibility to approve these private schools and oversee the program by auditing one accredited private school per year, drawn randomly. Therefore, it would take decades to audit each school in the program, if the number of schools remains stable.

Moreover, the legislation does not require any review beyond the audit by the treasurer’s office, nor is the treasurer’s staff trained to review student achievement, curriculum standards or teachers as part of school oversight, which is important to protect our state’s children.

Even though many private schools apply their own rigorous hiring standards, Kansas public school teachers must hold a college degree, undergo a state and federal background check and meet other requirements. Private schools are not required to apply any of the Kansas certification/licensure standards.

Further, this legislation provides no review of tax dollars qualified students may spend on additional educational services. “Trusting” without safeguards means taking big chances when disbursing Kansas tax dollars to pay private tuition or services for any K-12 student.

If passed, this legislation would set up a second, parallel oversight system for high risk students — the Kansas State Department of Education for those students in public schools and the state treasurer’s office for students qualified and requesting to use state funds for private school tuition or educational services.

The revised HB2119/HB2067 assumes a lot of “trust” and is short on “verification” that assures students and the tax paying public are protected.

Why would we set up, and pay for, audit-only oversight for an ESA program through the state treasurer and thus avoid transparency and accountability? Why would we exclude the Kansas State Department of Education, an entity that is accountable and has governance conveyed from the voters in each community? We shouldn’t. This legislation should not become law.

— Sharon Hartin Iorio is dean emerita at Wichita State University College of Education.


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