March 9, 2012

 

Debate on Voucher-like Proposal Takes Odd Turn
by Peter Hancock | The Kansas Education Policy Report

 

(March 6, 2012) A legislative hearing on a bill that would provide an indirect type of vouchers for private and parochial schools became heated today when one legislator tried to turn it into a debate over the Obama administration’s policy on contraceptive coverage.

The fireworks occurred in the House Education Budget Committee during a hearing on HB 2767 (www.kslegislature.org/li/b2011_12/measures/hb2767/), which would provide tax credits for taxpayers who contribute to organizations that provide scholarships for certain students to attend private or parochial schools.

Vickie Sandell Stangl, president of the Great Plains Chapter of Americans United for Separation of Church and State (www.au.org), spoke against the bill, arguing that she believed it would violate the Kansas Constitution’s ban on allowing religious sects (www.kslib.info/government-information/kansas-information/kansas-constitution/article-six-education.html to control any part of state education funding.

“Education tax credits are indirect voucher programs because the tax credit constitutes public funding,” Stangl said. “When the government grants a tax benefit, it forgoes that income … Once funds under this bill are given to private religious schools we know they can use those funds for a whole host of different reasons. They can use the funds for worship, religious training, salaries and so forth.”

Then, Rep. Brenda Landwehr (R-Wichita) steered the conversation in another direction. After confirming that the group supports religious freedoms, Landwehr asked: “Has your organization also come out and opposed the contraception mandate that’s been put on religious organizations by the federal government?”

Stangl said Americans United has not opposed those efforts. (In fact, the organization has issued statements supporting that policy and opposing Congressional efforts to block it (www.au.org/blogs/legislative/senate-supports-real-religious-freedom-and-stops-the-blunt-amendment).

“What has that got to do with this? I’m not sure I understand your question,” Stangle said. She then tried to steer the conversation back to HB 2767. But Landwehr would not relent.

“If you’re going to come in here and testify before a committee, representing an organization and state their position, you can’t have it one way in one area and another way in another area,” Landwehr said. “I’m trying to understand your credentials as an organization.”

Eventually, Committee chairwoman Rep. Lana Gordon (R-Topeka) cut off the exchange, insisting that the hearing focus on the bill at hand.

The testy exchange came at the end of an otherwise calm hearing that focused on the usual competing arguments for and against voucher programs: the desire by some to extend more choices to families who otherwise couldn’t afford private schools; concerns by others about diverting resources away from public schools in favor of private institutions that don’t always have to meet the same standards of accountability; and competing claims about whether voucher programs actually produce better academic performance for the students who use them.

The bill would allow any taxpayer — including individuals, corporations, banks and insurance companies — to receive a 90 percent credit for any contributions made to an organization that provides scholarships for qualifying students to attend eligible schools.

Qualifying students would be those from districts that receive high density, at-risk weighting, but which do not receive low-enrollment weighting. Currently, that would include 18 large or medium-size districts that serve large populations of at-risk students, including Wichita, Topeka, Hutchinson, Garden City, Dodge City and several others.

Further, scholarships under the program would be limited to students from families with incomes below 350 percent of the cutoff line to qualify for free lunches.

Participating schools accepting the scholarships would have to be accredited, either by the state, the Independent Schools Association of the Central States, or the Independent Schools Association of the Southwest.

© 2012, Hancock Publishing Co. All rights reserved. Reposted here with permission.