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Legislators offer tax credits for scholarships to private schools

4/15/2014

By ELISE REUTER

By ELISE REUTER

KU Statehouse Wire Service

TOPEKA -- While the education funding bill passed by the Kansas Legislature earlier this month benefits public schools, private schools could gain from the bill as well.

House Bill 2506, intended to address the financial equity issue following a state Supreme Court ruling, included a provision that gives tax credits to corporations that provide scholarships to private schools.

District leaders criticized the lack of prior review for the last-minute changes to the bill, which was interpreted as a partisan policy piece rather than a funding solution.

"We had no opportunity to discuss what this means or how that might work," said Wichita Public Schools spokeswoman Susan Arensman. "We wished it had a full hearing and vetting by the Legislature, instead of being on the floor over the weekend."

The bill would create the Tax Credit for Low Income Students Scholarship Program Act, which is directed toward at-risk students who attend Title I focus or priority schools. Corporations can donate up to $8,000 per student, and in turn receive a tax credit equal to 70 percent of their contributions. The program would remove up to $10 million from the state general fund and would give scholarships to a minimum of 1,785 students.

"If companies are already participating in these types of scholarship programs, and now they can have these tax incentives, it certainly helps their bottom line and may encourage other companies to participate at well," said Jason Watkins, Wichita Chamber of Commerce director of government relations. "At the same time, we want to make sure we focus on the things that benefit our public K-12 schools."

Most private schools were pleased with the provision and welcomed the idea of enrolling additional students.

"If it helps students attend a school they might not be able to afford, we're for giving parents and students that choice," said Tom Davis, headmaster of Wichita-Collegiate.

While private schools and corporations have not taken action yet, some school officials hope to advertise to corporations and to students in struggling schools to gain interest. According to the bill, Scholarship Granting Organizations will be created to take corporate money and student applications, and then decide which schools and students receive funding. Any K-12 non-public school is eligible to receive the scholarship.

Craig Neuenswander, director of school finance for Kansas Department of Education, said the check for the scholarship is jointly made out to the selected student's parents and the selected private school.

"It's definitely not to say public education is inadequate, but this will provide a choice to parents and students who want private education," said Miranda Collins, development director of Cair Paravel Latin School, a private school in Topeka.

Critics disagreed, saying the act would take away support for public schools while sending students to unregulated schools.

The Kansas Association of School Boards said they particularly were concerned about the policy section of the bill, saying it "does not require these schools to accept all students or operate without discrimination; to be accredited; to participate in state assessments or any other assessment program; or to report any academic performance or student information to the Kansas State Board of Education, local school districts or parents."

Judith Deedy, executive director for Game On for Kansas Schools, noted similarities between the portion of the bill and a model policy created by the American Legislative Exchange Council, a group touting free market values and limited government policy.

"When you get 70 cents back for every dollar you give away, that's not philanthropy; that's tax avoidance," Deedy said. "In a time where we're making cuts to fund public schools, why would we give corporations another $10 million out of state general fund?"

Unions stood in opposition to the measure, as Game On, KNEA and others released statements asking Brownback to refuse to sign the bill into law.

"We're not going to walk away," said Mark Desetti, political advocacy director for the Kansas National Education Association. "For the most part, the Legislature addresses the equity issue. The financial part of this bill is not terrible, but the policy parts are awful."

Meanwhile, teachers and district leaders scrambled to determine the bills effects for their respective districts.

"It's just kind of unusual that they would throw in so much policy around tax relief and tie it into a funding mechanism," said Julie Ford, Topeka school district superintendent. "It's more geared around business and tax benefits."

David Smith, chief of staff for Kansas City, Kan., public schools, said the bill was targeted at students specifically in low-income districts, including his district. Now, he is trying to figure out what this portion of the bill will mean for public schools.

"It is beyond my comprehension how encouraging students to go to a private school serves the public good," Smith said. "It is such a perversion of what it means to serve the public that I don't get it."

Elise Reuter is a University of Kansas senior from Colorado Springs, Colo., majoring in journalism.