Potential changes to Kansas’ private school tax credit initiative could block some private schools from joining in coming years.

Provisions that set accreditation or academic outcome standards for private schools are included in a 114-page education bill that primarily establishes a new statewide funding formula for public schools.

House Democrats who feel the proposed limitations don’t go far enough will pursue an amendment — possibly on the House floor — to phase out the tax credit program entirely. They want to do so over a period of several years.

“I don’t want to come off as anti-private schools,” said Rep. Valdenia Winn, D-Kansas City, a member of the committee that will vote on advancing the bill. “But I oppose the (tax credit) concept. It’s a backdoor way to have vouchers.”

At the heart of the debate are clashes over separation of church and state, the state’s right to incentivize charitable giving through tax credits, and a broader fight over school choice and support for public schools.

But in a year in which the Legislature is tasked with creating a new formula for public school funding and doing so in a manner that complies with a high-profile Kansas Supreme Court ruling, the annually recurring battle over private school tax credits is receiving less attention than it might otherwise.

At a hearing in March, proponents and opponents faced off over a bill that seeks to expand the private school program.

“We know that parents of at-risk children have limited choices because they cannot afford to own or rent a residence in the higher-achieving public school districts,” Diocese of Wichita schools superintendent Bob Voboril testified. “And they cannot afford to pay the costs of attending non-public schools.”

The program to date

This school year, the tax credit program is funding private school tuition for about 190 students — primarily at Catholic schools in the Archdiocese of Kansas City in Kansas that meet state standards for accreditation. A small number of children — 10, as of last summer’s data filed with the state — have received funds to attend an unaccredited school in Wichita.

The program has potential to grow as fundraising efforts continue. As of January, corporations had donated about $1.57 million since the law took effect. This a reduction of about $1.1 million in tax payments to the state, assuming the donors all claim the credits. The Kansas Legislature created the tax credit program in 2014. It allows corporations to donate money to organizations that grant scholarships for children to attend private schools. The donors can then reduce their tax liability by 70 percent of the value of their contribution.

Eligible children come from low-income families and live within the attendance zones of any of 99 specific public schools deemed to be low-performers based on standardized test scores.

Since 2014, at least seven more bills have followed, mostly seeking to widen the program’s scope or further incentivize donations by upping the tax credit rate.

Most of the proposals stalled, though the Legislature did expand the program in 2015 with tweaks to allow Catholic schools in the Wichita Diocese to join. Northeast Kansas Catholic schools could already participate under the program’s original iteration, but the 10,000-student Wichita Diocese system had been unable because its schools are funded through parishioner tithing instead of tuition.

The 2017 session

At least three proposals in the Legislature this year would affect the tax credit program. House Bill 2252, a phase-out proposal, and H.B. 2374, a potential expansion, haven’t passed out of committee. The 114-page school finance bill, H.B. 2410, is expected to reach a vote in May.

H.B. 2410 would restrict participating private schools to three types:

Those that meet state accreditation standards and whose students outperform the “trend line” for postsecondary outcomes among accredited public and private schools. This bar would be determined by the Kansas State Board of Education.

Those with average composite ACT scores above the statewide mean for accredited public and private schools. Those that are part of the tax credit program by July 2018. These would be grandfathered in.

Under existing tax credit law, any and all private schools can participate. The potential for unaccredited schools to tap into the program upset Democrats and some Republicans concerned that such institutions aren’t required to make public their academic outcomes, enrollment data and other information, nor to hire certified teachers.

Rep. Fred Patton, R-Topeka, is one such lawmaker. He said schools benefiting from the state’s tax credit program should “need to meet the same standards as our public schools.”

Those who disagree argue that bad private schools won’t benefit from tax credits because parents won’t choose them.

Another point of contention is whether tax credits undermine state funding for schools or violate separation of church and state, though supporters of private school tax credits point to court decisions including a 2011 U.S. Supreme Court ruling that taxpayers couldn’t challenge a similar law in Arizona.

Targeted schools

Separately, an amendment tacked onto H.B. 2410 could expand the program to include the attendance zones of more public schools, but the author of that provision says he is seeking a tweak in language to keep the total number of public schools about the same as under current law.

Rep. Jim Karleskint, R-Tonganoxie, said expanding the number of targeted public schools isn’t his goal, but if the program continues to exist, he feels the state should at least change which public schools are on the list.

Under existing law, only low-income schools with low test scores and a certain type of federal funding could land on the list of 99 low-performers. The bulk of such schools are located in the state’s three major high-poverty urban districts: Kansas City USD 500, Wichita USD 259 and Topeka USD 501.

Karleskint’s amendment would change this list to identify the 100 lowest-performing public schools statewide, regardless of whether they received federal Title I funds.

“We shouldn’t single out Title schools,” he said.