Editorial Roundup: Kansas

Kansas City Star. March 16, 2023.

Editorial: Kansas ‘school choice’ plan is a money transfer from rural taxpayers to urban families

The Kansas House of Representatives wants to give your tax dollars to well-off families so that they can put their kids in private schools. That’s a recipe for underfunded public schools and propping up dodgy educational endeavors.

The House on Wednesday passed a bill to create the Sunflower Education Equity Scholarship Fund. It would give thousands of lucky families about $5,000 per year to spend on private school tuition, tutoring, educational supplies and even school uniforms. The money also could be used for home schooling.

Republicans just don’t want you to call it a “voucher” program. The lawmakers who passed the bill know that’s a loaded word that isn’t too popular with a lot of Kansans. They insist it’s a “scholarship fund.” (See, it’s right there in the name.) And that the money is for “education savings accounts.” (Savings means people putting their own money aside, not government spending.)

Whatever you call it, the bill would divert state taxpayer dollars to private schools and home schooling. The Kansas Division of Budget estimates it would cost $152 million per year. That’s public money that wouldn’t be available to still-underfunded public schools.

No one should expect this to be the end of it, either. In a few years, Republicans will declare it a success and try to expand it to all Kansans in private schools.

When the program is fully implemented, a family of four with household income of $180,000 in today’s dollars would be eligible. That might not be the top 1% of earners, but it’s hardly poverty.

Most low-income Kansans, even with a few thousand dollars of help, still couldn’t afford tuition at a private school. There’s a sweet spot in there somewhere, but many of the beneficiaries can afford private school already.

Rural residents should be especially outraged, as they’d end up subsidizing urban students. Most private schools are located in the state’s urban areas. Unless a family in a rural community has a nearby private school that aligns with their values, or the wherewithal to home-school their kids, their taxes will go into the Sunflower Fund — but they’ll never benefit from it.

Because the public pays for education, it imposes standards and transparency on public schools. Those schools might not always live up to the public’s expectations, but the public then has the power to elect new education leaders and new lawmakers to fix things.

PRIVATE, HOME SCHOOLS NOT ACCOUNTABLE TO TAXPAYERS

Private schools and home schools aren’t held to the same standards. Kansans would have no assurance that their tax dollars are going to good use. Indeed, unaccountable private schools can go far off the rails.

Consider, for example, the case of a home schooling network in Ohio that recently received national attention. Parents in the group taught their children lessons grounded in Nazi ideology. They based writing exercises on quotes by Adolf Hitler, lionized Confederate generals and denigrated Martin Luther King Jr as a “deceitful, dishonest, riot-inducing negro.”

Closer to home, residents of Kansas City recently witnessed another risk with private schools: Bigotry can leave a school and families unexpectedly in the lurch. Such was the case with Urban Christian Academy. It might have had internal challenges, but it’s closing basically because its backers couldn’t stomach support for the LGBTQ community.

On Wednesday, the bill passed the House with a close 64-61 vote. Only one Democrat — Kansas City, Kansas, freshman state Rep. Marvin Robinson — voted for it. Notably, 64 votes is not enough to overcome a gubernatorial veto if it comes to that, and it should come to that if the bill passes the state Senate and winds up on Gov. Laura Kelly’s desk.

Republicans put some sugar in the bill to entice Kelly. There’s money for special education, which is one of the governor’s priorities, as well as a gimmick to let schools with declining enrollment hold onto more funding based on past years’ enrollment. It also would mandate raises for teachers, though it provides no money to pay for them. Those ideas deserve their own up-or-down votes.

If Republicans don’t want to fund special education to the level it needs to be funded, that’s on them. They shouldn’t use the issue to try to buy the governor’s support for an awful voucher — er, scholarship fund — program. Public funds belong in accountable public schools, not subsidizing unaccountable private schools.

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Topeka Capital-Journal. March 17, 2023.

Editorial: It’s time for Kansas leaders to ensure rail safety following East Palestine incident

What happened in East Palestine, Ohio, is tragic, awful and deeply concerning.

We hope the residents get some answers and find a way forward. We also hope this accident means we can start to see change in the rail industry.

It’s not impossible to fathom the next East Palestine could be in Kansas. Really, it could happen to any small town with a railway. Heck, it could happen to a big one, too.

Imagine if an accident like that happened in Newton, Auburn or Alma? Imagine if it happened in Topeka, Manhattan or Wichita? What could something like that mean for our communities? For our state?

We don’t want to find out. And we need to do what we can to prevent it from happening.

The Topeka Capital-Journal’s Andrew Bahl reports states across the country are considering improvements to rail safety in the wake of the East Palestine accident. Nationally, 15 states have introduced legislation to limit train length, increase safety mechanisms and ensure adequate crew sizes.

In Kansas, these ideas have long been proposed but have not gotten much traction due to long-running legal concerns. But there are signs that might be changing.

Sen. Carolyn McGinn, R-Sedgwick, who has long introduced legislation to increase rail safety, told Bahl the railroads need to be good neighbors.

Bahl also reports train derailments in Kansas are inevitable, finding 53 train derailments in the state between 2018 and 2021, an average of more than one per month. None were as serious as the Norfolk Southern accident in Ohio, but two people were injured as a result of the Kansas incidents and the derailments caused more than $8 million in damage.

Legislation in the Senate Transportation Committee would prohibit freight companies from running trains of over 8,500 feet in length. They also would be required to leave 250 feet between any rail crossings and cars being stored nearby.

The rail industry seems to believe this law won’t hold up if passed.

Nevertheless, we appreciate the legislature for taking up the issue and giving it consideration.

It’s nice to see that local and state officials are asking questions, trying to be proactive in preventing derailments in Kansas. The legalese might make this difficult, but we wish them luck. It’s too important not to try.

We want to make sure Kansas stays safe from avoidable disasters.

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