It’s been a productive General Assembly session for the new Republican majorities in the Kentucky Senate and House of Representatives. The GOP leadership has ushered a number of major bills on education, the economy, and other issues through to final passage despite only having 30 days to complete their work.
Before the end of this year’s session, legislative leaders gathered on KET’s Kentucky Tonight to discuss several of the key measures they’ve pursued. The guests were Senate President Robert Stivers (R-Manchester), Senate Minority Floor Leader Ray Jones (D-Pikeville), House Speaker Jeff Hoover (R-Jamestown), and House Minority Floor Leader Rocky Adkins (D-Sandy Hook).
Jobs and the Economy
According to House Speaker Hoover, the Republicans have focused the 2017 General Assembly on actions they believe will improve the state’s business climate.
“The entire session has been driven [by] policies that will make Kentucky competitive economically, to create opportunity, to create jobs,” Hoover says. “I think in a number of different measures, we have done that.”
In the first week alone, lawmakers passed and Gov. Matt Bevin signed into law measures to make Kentucky a right to work state and to repeal prevailing wage regulations, two items long sought by Republicans. Democrats opposed both measures, saying they would hurt organized labor and blue-collar Kentuckians.
Senate President Stivers disputes the notion that right to work is anti-union. House Bill 1 removed mandates that an employee must join or pay dues to a union that operates in his or her workplace. Stivers says Tennessee, which has been a right to work state for decades, is seeing tremendous growth in union jobs.
“If individuals want to unionize, that’s their right,” Stivers says. “But let’s don’t force people into the union.”
Senate Minority Leader Jones says right to work and prevailing wage don’t help workers but instead benefit the corporations that he says funded the Republican takeover of the General Assembly. He says there’s a simple reason why more employees are organizing in Tennessee.
“If you want to know why states that have passed right to work have higher union participation, it’s because the work conditions are worse and the pay is worse,” says Jones. “It forces workers to have to unionize.”
Democrats trying to get used to their new minority status in the House have complained about the speed with which legislation has been considered this session. House Minority Floor Leader Adkins says Republican leadership resorted to suspending some rules so they could pass bills so rapidly. He says that prevented the public from joining the debate on important economic policies that impact working-class families.
“When you squeeze the pocketbook of the middle class, it hurts the economy,” Adkins says. “It drives the economy down as far as people being able to have the money they need... to buy a truck or a house, or put food on the table, or send their kids to school.”
Stivers notes that he knows of no rules that were suspended during the session.
For seven years, Republicans tried to pass charter school legislation but found their efforts stymied by the previous Democratic majority in the House. Now with the passage of House Bill 520, Kentucky becomes the 44th state to embrace this education alternative. Public charter schools will have to meet the same academic and accountability standards as traditional public schools, but are given greater flexibility to try new or innovative educational approaches.
Republicans tout the local control the measure provides. In the bill local boards of education are empowered to authorize a charter school and set the criteria for how it would operate. The mayors of Louisville and Lexington also have the option to become charter authorizers for schools in their respective counties. Hoover says that’s important because 80 percent of students who attend failing schools in Kentucky live in Jefferson County.
The goal of the legislation is to improve educational outcomes for children, close achievement gaps in student performance, and give parents an alternative to sending their child to a persistently low-performing school. Critics say the bill will do nothing to improve traditional schools that are struggling.
“It’s unconscionable or immoral to leave any child in a failing school,” says Jones. “The answer is not to create a whole new school or series of schools. It’s to fix the problem in that [failing] school.”
Stivers says districts that have a charter operation must see an increase in the academic attainment levels for the entire system, not just for the charter school itself. He says that will prevent charters from admitting only the best students as a way to boost that school’s performance scores.
“So you can’t cherry pick [students],” Stivers says, “because if you just cherry-pick you can never reach that attainment level for the whole system.”
Democrats criticized a number of aspects of the bill. They wanted at-risk children and students from low-performing schools to be given priority on admission to charters. They also oppose allowing for-profit corporations operate the schools.
Stivers says Republicans resisted admission preferences because they didn’t want to stigmatize students or cluster low achievers into one school. He also says for-profit companies already contract to provide a range of services to traditional public schools, so he says allowing them to operate charters should be no different.
Although Stivers and Hoover stress the local nature of charter decisions, Jones and Adkins say that if a charter application is rejected locally, organizers can appeal that decision to the state board of education. Democrats say that potentially strips away local control and gives it a group of individuals selected by the governor.
Democrats also fear that charters schools will drain public funds away from traditional schools, since per-pupil funding follows the student to whatever school they attend. Jones says that could be especially challenging for smaller or poorer school districts that already have shrinking populations and lower tax revenues.
Hoover says he believes the charter school movement will have little impact beyond the state’s urban areas. He says it will be “virtually impossible” for rural districts to establish charter schools because it won’t be financially feasible for them to do so.
The bill was introduced and moved to final passage in just under a month, and Adkins says not a single Democrat voted for the measure.
“This is the first major policy, especially dealing with education, that there really hasn’t been a consensus on,” Adkins says, “a consensus of building across Kentucky the confidence that’s needed for a measure and a policy like this to work.”
“There will never be a consensus on this issue,” counters Hoover, “as long as one political party is beholden and has been for decades to the largest union in the state, that being the teacher’s union.”
The Kentucky Education Association did oppose HB 520 as did the Kentucky School Board Association, non-union teachers, parent organizations, and other education-related groups, according to Adkins.
The legislation could face a legal challenge. Jones says HB 520 may not meet Kentucky constitutional requirements that the state provide an adequate system of common public schools. It could also fail to meet parameters established in the Rose v. Council for Better Education court decision that led to the 1990 Kentucky Education Reform Act, according to Jones. Stivers says attorneys he consulted with believe the legislation to be constitutionally valid.
Other Education-Related Measures
Although charter schools passed along party lines, another K-12 education measure cleared both chambers with no dissenting votes. Senate Bill 1 includes provisions to eliminate the Common Core standards, create a mechanism to review state academic standards every six years, shift more authority back to local school districts, and reduce bureaucracy and paperwork.
“I think if Senate Bill 1 does nothing else, it allows teachers to free up some time so they can teach,” says Hoover.
The House made minor amendments to the measure when the chamber passed it last week. Stivers says he expects the Senate to concur with those changes when the legislature reconvenes on March 29 for its final two days of business.
An effort to allow students to attend the schools closest to their homes has been shelved. The so-called Neighborhood Schools Bill passed the House but stalled in the Senate. Stivers praises the intent of the bill – to reduce travel times for students and to facilitate more parental involvement in their child’s school – but he says lawmakers had concerns about how the legislation would be implemented.
Opponents of House Bill 151 argued it could lead to a re-segregation of Jefferson County Public Schools because of long-standing segregated housing patterns in Metro Louisville. Jones also says school assignment plans are a local issue and are best decided by each particular district.
In higher education, lawmakers approved a new performance-based funding formula for Kentucky’s public universities and community colleges. Under Senate Bill 153 institutions will receive 35 percent of their funding based on student success and degree completion, 35 percent on credit hours completed, and 30 percent on base operation costs. In fiscal year 2018, $43 million in higher education dollars will be allocated using this formula. By 2021, all university and community college base funding will be tied to these metrics.
Hoover acknowledges the legislation is not perfect but he says lawmakers wanted to honor the work the Council on Postsecondary Education (CPE) and university presidents did to develop the new formula. Stivers says the measure was needed to get schools to focus on degree programs that will lead to good paying jobs.
“When you graduate 120 elementary education teachers knowing that only 30 of them are going to get employed, that’s an improper use of our resources,” says Stivers. “And that’s selling a falsehood to those students who got into those programs.”
Adkins and Jones say the bigger issue is ongoing cuts to higher education that have led to higher tuition costs for students. They also fear the new funding model will adversely impact Morehead State University and Eastern Kentucky University since they draw on student populations that tend to be poorer and need more academic remediation.
“There are some universities going to really get hurt by this,” Adkins says. “And when they get hurt, then the higher education of students coming from those regions will get hurt as well.”
Finally Kentucky governors will have greater authority to remove board members or entire boards at state universities, community colleges, the CPE, and the state Board of Education.
Stivers says Senate Bill 107 was necessary to ensure that these boards are properly functioning and in compliance with state statute. He says the legislation was drafted in consultation with the Southern Association of Schools and Colleges, which accredits universities in the state.
Jones argues the measure lacks proper accountability.
“The problem is this bill gives the governor substantial power to basically be the judge and the jury,” Jones says. “There’s no check or balances here.”
The leaders say Gov. Bevin has pledged to sign this year’s version of Real ID legislation. Lawmakers passed a similar bill last year that Bevin initially supported only to have the governor later veto it because of concerns raised by personal privacy advocates. House Bill 410 now makes it voluntary for people to get the new personal identification that will be required to board airplanes and visit military bases.
And the fate of House Bill 281 remains uncertain. The original measure capped contingency payments to outside counsel hired by the attorney general’s office to handle major lawsuits. A Senate committee substitute added later sought to give the governor authority to decide which civil cases the commonwealth would pursue.
Current Attorney General Andy Beshear, a Democrat, labeled the move a power grab. Stivers and other Republicans have criticized Beshear for being selective over which state laws he chooses to defend in court. Stivers says the state Constitution gives the legislature the right to define the powers of the attorney general’s office. He says he simply wants clarification as to who will defend all of Kentucky’s laws.