By Ainsley Trunkhill / Staff writer

American public schools have sought to educate the general population since the 1830s, with public schools today reaching more than 49.7 million students of all races, genders, sexual orientations, religions, or incomes.

Today, that very system may be under attack.

School vouchers, also known as “savings accounts” or “scholarships”, are gaining traction in Kansas, among other states, under the guise of school and parent choice. Many teachers, administrators, and even parents, however, recognize the threat that these vouchers hold to public institutions.

Traditionally, public school funding originates from a pool of money, the General State Fund, which is assigned to schools and divided amongst students. The base state aid goes directly to community and local schools and is spent in a directed manner on classrooms, salaries, and resources, among other things.

Under new suggested legislations, however, vouchers would pull tax dollars from this General State Fund to finance any private or homeschools that apply. In turn, this dampening of funds will either lessen state aid overall or put more burden on the state to find that money.

“Historically, when the general fund is low, then they borrow from roads and highways. They’ll borrow from Kansas Public Employees Retirement. They’ll lessen funds to things like safety … funding fire departments, police departments,” said Lynette Krieger-Zook, a retired public school educator and a current substitute in public schools. “Any kind of public money is at jeopardy.”

Public schools, specifically in rural areas, are those most in jeopardy, as already-underfunded schools can’t afford to lose students and money to vouchers.

“Let’s say that Buhler loses 10 kids to vouchers. We’re looking at cutting a teacher,” said Samantha Neill, a Journalist and English teacher at Buhler High School and the 2018 Kansas Teacher of the Year. “But if you’ve got a school out west that has 112 kids in their entire district and you lose 10 kids, you’re looking at losing the district.”

Regardless, the rhetoric used by those in support of vouchers appeals to many, as, on the surface, it appears to advocate for freedom of choice for all families.

Teri Eckhoff, the General Education Advisor and Instructor of Intro to Education at HutchCC, admits to falling for its idealistic appeal.
“Years ago, when I first heard about school vouchers, my opinion was ‘Yes! Parents need to have options available regarding the quality of education for their children because as an educator I know not all schools are good schools,’ ” Eckhoff said. “Then I learned that the private and charter schools receiving the public tax dollars from these vouchers don’t have to abide by the same regulations as public schools. It may provide the opportunity for some students to receive a better education, but it does not provide that opportunity for all students, which I see as a deal breaker.”

The concern of accountability lies at the heart of the problem for school vouchers. In public schools, each dollar spent must be accounted for, and schools must abide by state standards such as ACT scores, curriculum, graduation rates, etc.

Vouchers, however, introduce a double standard in which any private school that applies will receive funding without any form of following accountability. Public schools, meanwhile, are met with lessened funds while still having to adhere to rigorous standards.

Perhaps the most critical standard in regard to the discourse is inclusivity. Public schools accept all students regardless of race, gender, income, or intellectual ability, whereas private schools can deny access to students and do not have to abide by inclusive standards, such as the Individuals with Disabilities Education Act law.

Not only are private schools under no obligation to accept all students, but many do not even provide resources for the special needs students that they do have. Melissa Evans, the Assistant Principal and Athletic Director at Hutchinson Middle School 7 and a HutchCC graduate who also attended Trinity Catholic High School, describes how this may look in our own community.

“If a kiddo in Hutchinson decided to go to Trinity and they gave them a voucher … that kiddo’s money, whatever their voucher may be, would go to Trinity, while Trinity still uses our district for special education,” Evans said. “Now they are receiving money for that kiddo while we are still servicing that kiddo, and that’s only if they accept them.”

While private and public schools remain the primary setting for debate in the matter of vouchers, the sphere of homeschooling presents its own unique conflicts. Homeschools, just as with private schools, are under no accountability by state standards despite receiving state funds with vouchers. Any curriculum, even a Nazi curriculum, as was the case in an Ohio homeschool, could be funded by the state. Furthermore, families could use the money for any of their needs without ever actually educating their children, therefore directly targeting the low-income students that the bill claims to protect.

“They’re dangling a carrot in front of parents that are struggling,” said Meischa Zimmerman, a local parent with experience in homeschooling. “It’s like ‘Oh, I’ve got three kids and I could get five grand for each kid if I keep them at home, and who’s going to know?’”

Under vouchers, families do not have to register as a homeschool, nor do they have to register with the Department of Education. Here, the lack of accountability and oversight comes into play again, with serious effects on the necessary education of students. In many cases, public schools serve as the only place where low-income students eat a good meal or are protected from abuse; Vouchers, Zimmerman explains, threaten the sanctity of that safe environment.

“You are going to have children that get lost,” Zimmerman said. “It’s incredibly scary to me.”

All of these complications of vouchers remain protected by a want for parents’ choice. The media describes a mass Exodus from public schools as parents grow increasingly concerned with “woke” agendas instigated by public schools. Despite these claims, 90% of students still attend public schools today.

Melissa Evans notes this driving rhetoric as her biggest frustration surrounding vouchers.

“It’s being framed and marketed as parents’ choice, but that’s not what people are asking for,” Evans said. “Not my parents. Poll my school’s parents. Not my families.”

In submitted testimonies regarding the bill, 91% opposed it, yet the bill still passed through committee.

“If I felt like this bill represented the families and the students that I serve every day, then I would be OK with it, but it doesn’t,” Evans said.

Evans, along with Lynette Krieger-Zook, Samantha Neill, and Meischa Zimmermann are behind Educate Reno County on Facebook, which urges people to hold state representatives accountable so that their legislation reflects the desires of the people they represent. They state that following representatives on social media, sending emails, and reading quality news sources are all ways to remain active in the decisions that affect your own life. On March 4 in Stringer Fine Arts Center, from 8:30 a.m.-11 a.m., the Hutchinson/Reno County Chamber will host a legislative forum that discusses school vouchers, among other issues. The general public is welcome to attend.

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