Editor’s Note: On March 24, after the broadcast of this program, Gov. Andy Beshear vetoed House Bill 563 over his concerns that it would take as much as $25 million from public education and send it to “unaccountable private organizations with little oversight.” As for the nonresident student policy section of the bill, Beshear said he is willing to work towards a solution that would help struggling independent public school districts in the commonwealth.
In the final hours before the Kentucky General Assembly adjourned for the gubernatorial veto period last week, state lawmakers rushed through a bill that would expand school choice opportunities for parents and their children. House Bill 563 requires local school boards to craft policies to accept students from outside of their home districts. School funding that is allocated per pupil, known as SEEK, would follow students to the new district they select.
Another provision of the bill creates a $25 million tax credit for individuals who donate to non-profit organizations that will provide scholarship funds to needy students to cover the cost of attending a different public school, taking online courses or specialized career training, or receiving tutoring services. Scholarship students in the state’s eight most populous counties could also receive financial assistance to attend a private school.
Private and charter school advocates hail the legislation as a long-awaited step towards school choice options that most other states already allow. But some education advocates fear HB 563 will hurt already struggling public schools in the commonwealth.
A ‘Tidal Shift’ in Education Opportunities
Taken as a whole, HB 563 creates a “tidal shift” for Kentucky families who are dissatisfied with their current public school option, says Heather Huddleston, director of education policy at the Bluegrass Institute for Public Policy.
“We’ve always had school choice in this state for families with means,” says Huddleston. “House Bill 563 can help thousands of children who need it.”
An earlier version of HB 563 would have allowed students in Jefferson, Fayette, and Kenton counties the option to use money from the education opportunity accounts created by this legislation to attend a public or private school. But before the bill reached final passage, lawmakers added the private-school option for students in Boone, Campbell, Daviess, Hardin, and Warren counties.
Some families simply want a school that reflects their personal or spiritual values, says EdChoice Kentucky Vice President Andrew Vandiver. Others may seek a school that offers stronger academic programs or different extracurricular activities. Or they may want a safer environment for a child who is being bullied. He says HB 563 would make it possible for low-income parents to afford to pursue another opportunity.
“Put families in a position to choose and I think they’re going to make the right choices,” says Vandiver.
Kentucky Education Commissioner Jason Glass says he is not opposed to school choice, but he contends this bill is not the way to do it. While it does empower parents and could create more innovative models for schools, Glass says he is encouraging Gov. Beshear to veto HB 563.
“It’s enormously consequential and important that we get this right,” says Glass. “Kentuckians deserve quality public policy when it comes to education, and the fact that this has been run through late in the session with an intentional effort to limit input from stakeholders in Kentucky is really troubling.”
Concerns about Accountability
Glass and other critics say the measure lacks accountability from the private schools that might gain students and of the account granting organizations that will collect and disburse the donated funds to selected students. Kentucky Education Association President Eddie Campbell says the state could find better uses for the money that it will lose in providing a tax credit to the wealthy who donate scholarship funds to the granting organizations.
“That $25 million could be used for textbooks... for professional learning, our transportation isn’t fully funded,” says Campbell. “So there’s lots of ways this money could be put to use for all students in the state.”
Instead of making education opportunity accounts permanent, HB 563 creates a five-year pilot program to test the idea. Kentucky Center for Economic Policy Deputy Director Anna Baumann says she fears the tax credit cap will grow over time. She also questions provisions that give the granting organizations little oversight and the ability to keep up to 10 percent of funds raised to cover their overhead expenses.
“We’re opening the door to a program that will siphon resources out of the General Fund and into private schools that aren’t accountable to any of the standards that our public schools are held to,” says Baumann.
Vandiver says the bill does require reporting on the income of families helped by the program and how funds are being used. The account granting organizations will also be audited.
“The entire education opportunity account program is overseen by the state Department of Revenue,” says Huddleston. “So the fear that these programs will operate like the Wild West with no laws and no rules is really not going to be the case.”
Who Could Benefit from the Plan
Supporters of the measure say the plan is designed to help low-income children.
“A majority of the families have to be below reduced-lunch [income levels]... and within that category, you have to prioritize the people with the greatest need,” says Vandiver. “Once that threshold is met, you can go to 175 percent above reduced lunch, but those are working-class and middle-income families.”
But just because the money is targeted to those families doesn’t necessarily mean they will be able to access that funding. Baumann says research from other states indicates that the most affluent students within the eligibility criteria get the resources.
“The families that are most well situated to take advantage of the program are going to,” says Baumann. “Families in rural communities that don’t have many education alternatives, that have limited access to internet and transportation will face barriers to participating in the program.”
Glass calls the idea that HB 563 will be a boon for low-income students looking for other school options “a ruse.” He says poor and minority students who use these funds to get into a private school and then leave for whatever reason perform worse than those who stayed in a traditional public school. But Vandiver says low-income scholarship students in Florida’s school choice program were 43 percent more likely to attend a four-year college and 20 percent more likely to earn a bachelor’s degree.
The state’s public schools have had their funding cut by about 12 percent since 2008, according to Campbell. He says the new state budget includes no money for textbooks or professional development, and limited transportation dollars.
Glass also says that if private schools are to benefit from taxpayer dollars, then they should be required to meet the same standards and regulations as public schools and to accept any child who wants to attend, regardless of religion, sexual orientation, disability, or other status.
“If you’re going to take the public funds, pick up the moral responsibility that comes with those funds to serve every child,” says Glass.
Vandiver contends this $25 million investment by the commonwealth will not harm public schools. He says states with robust school choice program also have thriving public school systems.
“We have nothing against funding public schools, but the public schools currently receive about $8 billion in funding between state, local, and federal dollars, says Vandiver. “We’re only asking for a small amount of money that’s going to make a difference in the lives of thousands of kids across the state.”
Funding Private Schools with Public Dollars
The provision to allow public school students to attend a different public school district has also split educators.
Bowling Green Independent School District Superintendent Gary Fields supports HB 563, saying it will help the state’s 51 independent school districts survive. He says five independent districts have closed in the past 15 years. The Raceland-Worthington Independent schools in Greenup County have lost 12 percent of their enrollment in the last nine years, he says. Fields says he’s lost 60 students out of his district in recent years.
“For us, it’s a crisis of the independents,” says Fields. “No one would speak for us and so we had to speak for ourselves.”
Although his district is small, it’s highly diverse. Fields says 50 languages are spoken among his 4,200 students. His seven schools are 20 percent Black and 19 percent Hispanic; 65 percent students are on free lunch.
Under HB 563, students who live in Warren County or neighboring districts could more easily attend Bowling Green Independent. The education opportunity accounts could also cover the $500 tuition charged to outside-the-district students.
“It’s about opportunities, and I think that’s what we’re trying to give families in Kentucky,” says Fields.
Schools would not be required to take on nonresident students if they are already at capacity. Those that do welcome new students would also get the state SEEK funding that accompanies each pupil. That means some public school districts could lose funding, while others gain dollars.
The entire school choice package embodied in HB 563 worries a number of superintendents, including some that oversee independent districts. Houston Barber of the Frankfort city system says HB 563 will pave the way to publicly funding private school opportunities.
Superintendent Jay Brewer of the Dayton Independent School District in northern Kentucky says the so-called open-border policy will result in a shift of public dollars to private schools that have selective admissions criteria.
Fields says private schools are not the enemy of public schools, and both sides should learn to work together for the good of students. He contends the competition will make all schools better.
“Parents are going to decide with their SEEK dollars,” says Fields. “That’s going to show you if a district is having success.”
The fate of HB 563 is far from certain. The bill passed the state Senate 21 to 15, and the House 48 to 47. If Gov. Andy Beshear vetoes HB 563, as he has warned he will likely do, lawmakers might be unable to override that veto in the House, which would require at least 51 votes.