FRANKFORT (AP) — Republican lawmakers advanced legislation Thursday to make it easier for Kentucky students to cross district lines and potentially tap into funding pools to help pay school expenses, a measure critics say could threaten the viability of some school districts.
The sweeping measure — gaining momentum in the closing days of the legislative session — cleared the House Appropriations and Revenue Committee, sending it to the full House.
The bill would allow for creation of education opportunity accounts, backed by donations. Access to the funding would be limited to students from low- and middle-income families who attend public schools. Third-party groups would manage the accounts and donors would receive a tax credit.
Private school students would not be eligible for the funding, a concession made by the bill's sponsor, Rep. Chad McCoy, a member of the House Republican leadership team.
The Kentucky Education Association, which represents tens of thousands of educators, quickly mounted a campaign against the measure, arguing it would hurt public education. Its president, Eddie Campbell, said the education opportunity accounts would amount to tax breaks for wealthy donors at the expense of underfunded school districts. He called it “another example of legislators sneaking in an unpopular issue disguised as something else.”
Under another key section, school districts would have to create policies allowing students to attend schools there if they live in other districts. The bill would allow nonresident students to count toward a district’s daily attendance figure — a crucial variable in calculating school funding in Kentucky.
Supporters framed the measure as a way for low-income parents to seek the best fit possible for their children's schooling — opportunities they say are now often denied due to lack of income.
“Who knows what’s best for kids? The mom and dad,” McCoy said.
During the committee hearing, critics warned the bill is being rushed without knowing the full impact of loosening policies on student movement and what consequences it would have on funding for school districts. Some districts would benefit, while others would be hurt, they said.
Chuck Truesdell, with Kentucky Department of Education, said the measure poses an “existential threat” to some districts that could suffer enrollment losses.
Ballard County schools Superintendent Casey Allen said the measure would “lead to concentrations of high-need, vulnerable students" in some districts and schools. The result will “further amplify the issue of haves vs. have-nots in our state,” he said.
“Both parts of this legislation have the potential to pull funding from small, rural school districts, leaving them to do harder work with less money," Allen said. "This will increase inequities, not increase opportunities.”
The measure drew support from some educators. Gary Fields, superintendent of Bowling Green Independent Schools, said it would help spur more innovation in districts looking to lure students.
“Competition pushes schools to find their strengths, to do better and to be better for all students,” he told the committee.
If the measure becomes law, any student taking advantage of it to transfer to a new district would be ineligible to play sports for a year. The measure wouldn’t take effect until mid-2022, allowing lawmakers to consider follow-up changes to it in next year's legislative session, McCoy said.
Eligibility for a family wanting to tap into an education opportunity account to help pay for school expenses would be capped at 175% of the reduced-price lunch threshold. That’s roughly $84,800 for a family of four, the Courier Journal reported.
The bill would still need Senate approval if it clears the House. Republicans dominate both chambers.
The measure was reviewed during a joint meeting of the House and Senate budget committees on Wednesday. School choice and tax credit scholarships have been discussed in Kentucky for years, but the bill's sudden emergence as a GOP priority with just six days left in this year's session struck a nerve with some public education advocates.
Republican lawmakers' decision to abruptly push through public pension changes sparked mass protests by teachers and other public workers during the tenure of former GOP Gov. Matt Bevin. Those pension changes were struck down by Kentucky’s Supreme Court on procedural grounds.
The legislation is House Bill 563.