Education Notebook

As COVID-19 made its way through Madison County, the public school system shut its doors.

During that time, students were mandated to learn from home. Meanwhile, private school students' rules were more lenient.

Parents who had the money to do so were able to bring their students to private school or hire a tutor to keep their students progressing.

However, not every family was so lucky, and virtual learning continued in public school systems — a disparity appeared.

Proponents of House Bill 149, which will be up for voting in the house and senate during the 2021 session, say the legislation would help deplete this disparity by providing families with Education Opportunity Accounts (EOAs).

However, opponents of the bill, liken the new legislation as a "rebranding" of school voucher bills which have failed to pass in recent years — and one that could potentially siphon more money away from already underfunded public school systems.

Andrew Vandiver, a board member of EdChoice Kentucky, explained the bill would provide families with EOAs, which they can apply for based on their financial need. The funds families would receive from the EOAs can be used for a variety of education services. He explained the funds could be used to pay for private school tuition, therapy, tutors, or special needs services such as occupational therapy or physical therapy.

Desirae Caudill, pre-k teacher at LaFontaine Preparatory School, is a single mother of three children who personally believes an EOA would benefit her.

She explained two of her children, the youngest in pre-k and the other in third grade, began their first year of private school due to COVID-19 and the uncertainty of whether or not public schools would be held in-person. She noted her children have flourished in private school.

Her third-grader has sensory issues and struggles with loud noises. The difference in him during his time in a private school has been amazing, Caudill said.

However, with her pre-k child aging into kindergarten, Caudill’s tuition cost will more than double.

The price of tuition is already tough on the single mother.

“Basically, there are times where I have to choose whether tuition or rent will be paid on time,” Caudill said. She predicts being able to apply for an EOA would benefit her family’s future immensely.

“Being able to receive the more personalized attention and the smaller class sizes would be great,” Caudill said. “Their quality of life and education would be so much better.”

Vandiver said a misconception about the EOAs is they are only available for families with students in private schools. However, he said, this is not the case.

“Sometimes education choice gets characterized as just being about the school a child goes to,” Vandiver said. “But, this is more about connecting families with a wide range of services based on their financial need.”

Vandiver explained how the EOAs would be funded through donations made from private individuals to non-profit organizations. Families would then apply for funding through the non-profits. The application would then go through a third-party to ensure there was a uniform process of applications and awards, and the families would get their funding.

Vandiver noted there is a mischaracterization about EOAs as being a “kickback for wealthy people” which he claims is false.

Individual or corporate taxpayers would make a private contribution to a scholarship Account Granting Organization (AGO). In exchange, the taxpayer would receive a tax credit of 95% of the scholarship contribution, up to $1 million. So for every $1,000 contributed to the scholarship fund, a taxpayer receives $950 off their state tax bill.

Vandiver said the donor cannot benefit from the program. Vandiver said if someone is a donor, they cannot direct who gets the funding. They can also not benefit themselves, meaning they cannot have their children participate in the program.

According to University of Kentucky professors in education, Amanda Potterton, Joseph Waddington and Sarah E. LaCour, wrote in a recent OpEd for the Courier Journal that despite proponents claims, HB 149 using tax credits and intermediary organizations to distribute funds to families conveniently sidesteps “voucher” terminology and direct funding of private schools, which is prohibited by the state constitution, and does have a public school provision.

Critics also claim such a large tax credit proposed for individual and corporate donors that could escalate to over $1 billion in the next two decades, would have major implications for what funding is ultimately available or unavailable to public schools.

Kentucky Center for Economic Policy analyst Anna Baumann wrote with such leverage, anonymous wealthy investors and special interest groups can effectively direct the flow of public funds to private schools at an increasing level over time.

Since the growth mechanism doesn't have a cap, it could balloon rapidly. By its third year, it would be larger than the state's allocation for education technology in schools, according to an analysis by the Kentucky Center for Economic Policy.

It would "severely strain" Kentucky's ability to fund public schools, Baumann wrote claiming it would be more fiscally responsible to fund public schools directly.

Furthermore, critics of the bill, which include Lt. Gov. Jacqueline Coleman, fear the complete lack of anti-discrimination provisions in the proposed bill, and the fact that accountability measures for private schools are expressly prohibited, could greatly impact student populations already at risk.

HB 149 will need to get through the House, the Senate and make it past Gov. Andy Beshear’s desk without a veto in order to come to fruition. Once the bill is passed, which Vandiver is hopeful it will, he said it would be later in the year before families could apply.

“We will do it as fast as we can,” Vandiver said. “Because we know the need out there is great.”

He noted the demand for EOAs has only gone up since COVID-19. He explained Kentucky is now almost completely boxed in by states with some form of educational choice program. In total, there are 30 states which feature a program like the one in HB 149.

With the extraordinary situation brought on by the pandemic, Vandiver hope HB 149 will pass when others have failed.

“If we don’t act this session, we will be almost certainly surrounded by education choice states,” Vandiver said. “We think that puts Kentucky kids at a disadvantage… This is the time to do it.”

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