choice for the system, not for the students – The McPherson Sentinel

By Dave Trabert The Sentinel

“Today we heard about ways to give kids more choice and what we got back would be all kinds of excuses and reasons why kids shouldn’t have that choice, but the systems ( schools) should have all the determining choices.” — Rep. Kristey Williams, Chair, House K-12 Budget Committee

Twenty-eight states have open enrollment laws that allow students to attend public school outside of their home district, provided there is available capacity in the host district. But even that small amount of choice is too much for education officials in Kansas. For them, the needs of students and parents are always subordinated to the wishes of the adults who run the system.

The Kansas State Board of Education, the Kansas School Boards Association, local school board members, a superintendent, the KNEA teachers’ union, and PTA board members testified yesterday against HB 2553, which would remove Kansas from voluntary (the school district has control) to mandatory open enrollment. Their common objection was simply a matter of territory – they’re in control now and that’s how it should be.

The fierce opposition from education officials stood in stark contrast to one supporter, Madi Ashour, who told the committee she wouldn’t be there to defend students if it weren’t for open enrollment in Colorado. Ashour flew in from Colorado to tell lawmakers she would have been trapped in the district where her single mother could afford to live if not for open registration. Now, because the opportunity to attend another district has given her a better education, she is able to help others. Ashour is Senior Regional Advocacy Associate for ExcelinEd.

No choice for parents and students most in need

Education officials and their allies also yesterday opposed HB 2550 – education savings account legislation that would allow parents of low-income children (eligible for a free or reduced lunch) or those who receive at-risk services to transfer part of their public funding to a school that offers better educational opportunities.

They came up with the usual long list of objections – it’s not fair to the system, school officials want more funding, and offering money to follow the child isn’t in their financial interest, the money shouldn’t go to religious schools (even though a growing list of US Supreme Court opinions show that this is discrimination), yadayadyada.

State Treasurer Lynn Rogers, whose office would administer the ESAs, rattled off a litany of excuses while masking his real objection — he opposes anything that disrupts the public school monopoly. It was Lynn Rogers, then a school board member, who in 2017 had non-competition deed restrictions imposed on buildings sold by the Wichita School District.

A paragraph in the contract of sale for a vacant school states that the property cannot be used or operated “as a school for students in grades K-12 if a source of funding for school operations comes from public funds (taxes) at any time or if donors to the school qualify for tax credits for such donations.

Rogers, in a moment of honesty that stands in stark contrast to his testimony yesterday, said: ‘I don’t think we want to use our tax money and basically help somebody else start a school that would compete with us”.

Just leave undereducated children trapped in underperforming schools

Proponents of both bills cited a wealth of data and research explaining the need for educational choice and how it benefits all students, including:

• A quarter of Kansas public school students were below grade level in 2016; now a third are below grade level.

• There are more high school students who are below grade level in Kansas than there are students on track for college and careers. Only 21% of Kansas graduates who took the 2021 ACT test are considered college-ready in English, reading, math, and science.

• Reading proficiency has declined in Kansas, but states with robust choice programs are showing strong gains.

• 25 of 28 university studies find statistically significant positive results from programs of choice.

Education officials and their allies didn’t dispute these facts, or offer any assurances that the results would soon improve (but they did get several caps for more money).

It’s only a matter of when parents will have more choice, not if

The arguments for and against the choice this week were much the same as in previous years, but there was a noticeable change in the reactions of lawmakers.

Many more lawmakers challenged education officials to defend their positions and they took strong stances in favor of choice. Others who opposed choice in the past seemed more willing to hear how students might benefit.

There was a time when it was believed that the choice would never come to Kansas. This changed in 2014 with the tax credit scholarship program, which was enhanced several times. Now the atmosphere feels like it’s only a matter of time when more choice comes to Kansas, and the more parents tell lawmakers what they want, the sooner that time will come.

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