by Joe Bollig
KANSAS CITY, Kan. — The biggest obstacle to better educational opportunities for poor families in Kansas could be the biggest word in the world.
That word is “IF.” A lot depends on IF.
There are two bills before the Kansas Legislature — identical bills in the Senate and the House — that would expand the current Kansas Tax Credit for Low Income Student Scholarship Program act so more poor families could get scholarships for their children to attend nonpublic schools.
Those disadvantaged families will get scholarships for their children — IF legislators pass the bills, which will only happen IF Catholics and others who care about them contact their legislators and urge them to pass HB 2068 and SB 61.
“The Catholic Education Foundation supports the expansion of HB 2068 to make the program fair and equitable for all Kansas families in poverty,” said Libby Knox, testifying on Jan. 26 before the Kansas House K-12 Education Budget Committee.
Knox is director of development for the Catholic Education Foundation (CEF), a nonprofit scholarship-granting organization serving low-income students in the Archdiocese of Kansas City in Kansas.
The existing low-income scholarship act took effect in 2015.
The program does not use state funds, does not take funds away from public schools and is not a voucher program, said Knox. The money for the program comes from private businesses, which receive tax credits for donating funds to scholarship-granting organizations like the CEF.
According to a fiscal note prepared by the Kansas Division of Budget, “for the 2020-21 school year, 632 students [across the state] were awarded scholarships totaling approximately $2 million. For Tax Year 2020, there were $3.5 million in contributions to Scholarship Granting Organizations (SGO), resulting in total tax credits of $2.5 million.”
Also, the program has a $10 million fiscal cap.
All Catholic schools in the archdiocese are eligible to accept scholarship students, but due to restrictive qualifications, only 300 students at 17 schools are receiving low-income student scholarships through this program.
Families can qualify for the low- income student scholarships if the student attends or lives within the boundaries of the 100 lowest-performing public elementary schools in Kansas, qualifies for the federal free lunch program, or is entering school for the first time (kindergarten or transfer students only).
“[The bill] has no fiscal effect on the existing [program],” Knox testified. “It does not change the fiscal cap of the program nor represent any additional cost to the Kansas taxpayer. It also does not take funds from the state education budget.
“In fact, by providing scholarships to just 632 students in 2020, the program saved Kansas taxpayers more than $10 million. To put this in perspective, the 632 students on this scholarship represent 1/10 of 1 percent of the 502,000 students currently in K-12 schools in Kansas.”
More than 200 families who applied to the CEF for the low-income student scholarships to attend archdiocesan schools were denied by the state because they lived outside the boundaries of the 100 lowest-performing schools or were eligible for reduced — but not free — lunches.
“Low-income families move frequently but cannot predict which zip codes or school boundaries will qualify them for access to a better educational fit for their children,” said Knox. “How is that fair and equitable?”
One such parent who could benefit from the program but didn’t qualify because of the unfair and unequal rules is Evangelina Abril, a member of Holy Family Parish in Topeka. Two of her children attend Holy Family School and one attends Hayden High School.
The family moved from Arizona to Topeka. Arizona, unlike Kansas, allows students to attend any school regardless of school district boundaries. Since the Abrils were not sure of the public schools, they looked at Holy Family School, and “fell in love with the staff.”
But then Abril’s marriage ended, and her family struggled financially.
“After I tried to qualify for the tax credit scholarship program . . . we discovered that I did not qualify,” Abril testified before the committee. “Luckily, other forms of scholarships were available. It was a very trying time. I wasn’t sure if I would be able to continue having my daughters in Catholic education. If this legislation is changed, it would be a great benefit to families that want a better education for their children.”
Nick Anderson, principal of Holy Family School, testified that tying eligibility for the scholarships to the list of 100 lowest-performing schools is a problem for low-income families.
“Those families had to endure the tremendous difficulty of a change in schools and the worrying prospect of their children being in a school that was unable to meet their children’s needs in a multitude of ways,” Anderson testified to the committee. This is “unnecessarily traumatic.”
Knox urges all Catholics to contact their legislators and ask them to vote in favor of the two bills that would expand the Kansas Tax Credit for Low Income Student Scholarship Program act.