UPDATE: Lawmakers pass bill allowing education opportunity accounts

Update #2:  March 16, 2021:

FRANKFORT, Ky. (AP) – Kentucky lawmakers have passed a bill making it easier to cross district lines to attend school.

The bill also would allow funding pools to help pay for educational expenses.

The bill cleared the House Tuesday night. The bill now goes to Gov. Andy Beshear.

Earlier in the day, the Senate amended the bill to expand the potential use of tax credit scholarships for private school tuition.

The bill allows for creation of education opportunity accounts, backed by donors who would receive a tax credit.

The money could be used for a variety of educational expenses and for public school tuition.

 

Update:  March 16, 2021:

FRANKFORT, Ky. (AP) – The Kentucky Senate passed a bill making it easier to cross district lines to attend school.  The bill also would allow funding pools to help pay for educational expenses.

The sweeping bill cleared the Senate Tuesday evening.

The bill returns to the House for a potential final vote.

The Senate amended the bill to expand the potential use of tax credit scholarships for private school tuition. The bill allows for creation of education opportunity accounts, backed by donors who would receive a tax credit.

The money could be used for a variety of educational expenses and for public school tuition.

 

Evening update 7:30 p.m. from March 11, 2021:

FRANKFORT, Ky. (WTVQ/AP) – After three hours of debate, the Kentucky House on Thursday passed a much-debated school choice bill by a vote of 51-to-45.

An amendment was added to HB 563 prior to the vote that would allow money from education opportunity accounts (EOAs) to be used to pay private school tuition, but only in Fayette, Jefferson and Kenton counties.

The bill’s sponsor, House Majority Whip Chad McCoy, a Republican from Bardstown, initially took private schools out of the EOAs in the hopes of improving the legislation’s chances of passing.

The only other amendment adopted changed the bill to allow the state to fund full-day kindergarten for every public school district in the Commonwealth.

However, according to House Speaker David Osborne, the bill in its current form will require at least 60 members of the House to vote in its favor before final passage due to the appropriation related to full-day Kindergarten.

The overall bill would make it easier for students to cross district lines and use money from EOAs to help with expenses.  The bill lays out 12 things the money can be spent on, which includes public school tuition, fees, tutoring services, textbooks, uniforms and more.

Individuals or businesses who donate to organizations who issue EOAs would eligible for a tax credit under this bill.

Rep. McCoy says organizations that issue EOAs will be able to accept applications from families or individuals whose income level is at 175% of the reduced lunch level.

“These are truly the middle class and lower folks in our state,” McCoy added.

McCoy said he heard there was a concern that HB 563 would be used for students looking to play sports at a school with a better team.

“… 563 is 100% intended to be for a good education,” McCoy said. “And so we’ve put in there that you cannot play sports for one year.”

Twenty House Floor Amendments were filed in relation to HB 563, but only a few were adopted.

Rep. James Tipton, R-Taylorsville, spoke in favor of the state funding full-day Kindergarten and called it a “wise investment.”

House Floor Amendment 20, filed by Rep. Jerry T. Miller, R-Eastwood, changes HB 563 to allow only students in Kentucky’s most populous counties —Jefferson, Fayette and Kenton Counties—to use EOAs to fund private school tuition.

Miller said there are 175,000 children living in poverty in those counties and this bill and his floor amendment is about choice.

“I cannot ignore the plight of the children in poverty in our three most populous counties whose parent would like to make the choice to move them to a school who better meets their needs,” Miller said.

House Floor Amendments 1 and 20 were adopted.

Rep. Josie Raymond, D-Louisville, who filed many floor amendments related to HB 563, wanted to change the bill to prohibit discrimination in schools accepting EOA payments, require background checks for education service providers and more. Her floor amendments failed and she ultimately voted against the legislation.

Rep. Derrick Graham, D-Frankfort, spoke against HB 563, calling for lawmakers to pass legislation to invest in public school education instead.

“Public education is the key to open the door to economic opportunity, especially when it is properly funded,” Graham said. “…. I urge you to defeat this bill. It is not the right bill for us to pass.”

In defending HB 563, McCoy said: “We are putting $125 million into public education. How can you not be for that?”

HB 563 will now move to the full Senate for consideration.

However, according to House Speaker Rep. David W. Osborne, R-Prospect, the bill in its current form will require at least 60 members of the House to vote in its favor before final passage due to the appropriation related to full-day Kindergarten.

Original story below from March 11, 2021:

FRANKFORT, Ky. (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 is HB 563.

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.

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.

“KEA strongly opposes HB563 because, despite claims to the contrary, it will be detrimental to Kentucky’s public schools. So-called “education opportunity accounts” are just another term for private-school vouchers. This is another example of legislators sneaking in an unpopular issue disguised as something else, just like the infamous ‘sewer’ bill in 2018. As we all know, that last-minute “bait and switch” maneuver sparked outrage from educators and the public,” KEA President Eddie Campbell said.

“These private school vouchers take money directly out of our public schools which already are underfunded by the legislature. Instead of doing the right thing by public school students and families and putting needed dollars into school funding, the legislature is reducing state revenue by handing out tax breaks to big corporations and wealthy individual donors,” he continued.

“There is plenty the legislature could actually do to address the inequity that has been so well documented during the pandemic.  But instead of dealing with the actual causes of those problems, they choose to give a tax break to the wealthy. We should be talking about access to reliable broadband for all students and families, or about fully funding school transportation and other critical programs, or about putting money into desperately needed textbooks and technology.  The list of needs in the Commonwealth – not just in public education – goes on and on. But instead of having any of those important and impactful conversations, we are talking about offering tax breaks to those who don’t need it,” he concluded.

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