By CELIA LLOPIS-JEPSEN
Kansas’ private tuition tax credit program doubled in size in the 2016-2017 school year and appears likely to expand again after lawmakers voted to enhance it this session.
More than 200 children from low-income families received scholarships to attend private schools in northeast Kansas and Wichita during the fledgling program’s third year in existence. However, it only was the second year in which children actually received scholarships, because it took private schools time to set up the program.
The private school tax initiative passed into law under a conservative-controlled Legislature in 2014, raising hackles among some moderate and liberal lawmakers who saw it as diverting tax revenue to private and religious schools or as fiscally impractical given an ongoing lawsuit against the state’s K-12 funding.
Advocates of school choice — a movement that promotes alternatives to local public schools with the aim of prodding overall improvement of the K-12 sector by injecting competition — see potential to level the playing field for low-income families.
The program could grow again in its fourth year. Wichita Catholic schools have signaled plans to participate, and in June the Legislature loosened statutory restrictions in hopes of spurring greater fundraising.
The program works by allowing donors to fund scholarships in return for a deduction from certain types of tax bills, worth 70 percent of the value of their donation.
During the 2016-2017 school year, 205 students received about $690,000 in combined scholarship funds to attend private schools instead of their local public schools. Of these, 189 attended accredited Catholic schools in northeast Kansas — primarily in Kansas City and Topeka, but also in Leavenworth, Shawnee and Ottawa. Sixteen attended an unaccredited Christian school called Urban Prep Academy in Wichita.
A year earlier, 99 students received scholarships to attend northeast Kansas Catholic schools and 10 attended Urban Prep.
So far, families are primarily using the program to leave Kansas City Kansas Public Schools and Topeka Public Schools.
The information comes from annual fundraising and scholarship disclosure forms submitted to the state each summer by fundraising organizations affiliated with the private schools.