Kentucky Capitol Empty Seats

LOUISVILLE, Ky. (WDRB) -- Kentucky’s House of Representatives for the first time voted to make millions in tax credits available to help jumpstart fundraising for education spending accounts, with families in three of the state’s most populous counties allowed to pay for private school tuition with that money.

Exactly what form the House Bill 563 will take in the Senate remains to be seen and will be key in the bill’s path through the final days of the 2021 General Assembly.

School choice advocates like Andrew Vandiver, vice president of EdChoice Kentucky, remain optimistic that senators will include private school tuition aid for some Kentucky families, even if limited initially to Jefferson, Fayette and Kenton counties.

“I hope that the Senate does not miss out on this historic opportunity to bring educational choice to Kentucky,” said Vandiver, a longtime school choice advocate who also works as associate director of the Catholic Conference of Kentucky. “We will literally be surrounded by school choice states if we do not act now.”

The prospect of significant revisions to HB 563 in the Senate is worrisome – but expected – for Nema Brewer, co-founder of the public education advocacy group KY 120 United.

Brewer believes senators will cut full-day kindergarten funding from the bill and make other changes to HB 563 before sending it back to the House for concurrence, such as expanding private school tuition aid statewide or lifting the 2026 sunset provision in the program.

Funding for all-day kindergarten, which the Kentucky Department of Education previously requested about $140 million more per year to achieve, was tacked onto HB 563 along with the provision allowing families in Jefferson, Fayette and Kenton counties to spend account funds on private school tuitions through a pair of floor amendments.

House Speaker David Osborne, R-Prospect, said Thursday the bill as written will need at least three-fifths support, or 60 votes in the lower chamber, to achieve final passage if the kindergarten funding provision remains in the Senate's version of the bill because it is an appropriation.

The House passed HB 563 on a 51-45 vote.

“We were anticipating there was going to be a bait and switch,” Brewer said. “… It is the grossest way to do the people's work I have ever witnessed, and I’m telling you, I was here for the sewage bill.” In 2018, lawmakers quickly passed pension reform legislation by attaching it to an unrelated bill about wastewater services.

HB 563 creates a $25 million pool of annual tax credits over five years for donors to groups called account granting organizations, which basically administer education opportunity accounts and can retain up to 10% of their annual donations for management costs. Donors can contribute cash or marketable securities like stocks and recoup at least 95% of their donations – 97% if they make multiyear pledges – for up to $1 million in tax credits, according to HB 563.

Beyond the flexibility to spend funds on private school tuitions given to families in Kentucky counties with more than 150,000 residents, the accounts can help pay for school-related expenses like tutoring, therapies and uniforms. Families could not spend education opportunity account money on athletics.

The proposed program would only be available to families who earn 175% of the federal limit to qualify for reduced-price school meals, or about $86,000 for a family of four in the upcoming school year.

Most of the funds for first-time recipients would be reserved for families whose household income does not exceed the limit to qualify for reduced-price school meals, or $49,025 for a family for four. Within that group, HB 563 stipulates that funding must be awarded in order of financial need.

The remaining funds would be doled out to first-time recipients on a lottery basis in the current version of HB 563.

Leaders of the Kentucky Education Association, Jefferson County Public Schools and the Jefferson County Teachers Association were unavailable for comment Friday.

Representatives of KEA and JCTA spoke against HB 563 during a news conference with Lt. Gov. Jacqueline Coleman and Education Commissioner Jason Glass shortly before lawmakers expanded the scope of education opportunity accounts to include private school tuition aid for families in Jefferson, Fayette and Kenton counties, and this year’s legislative priorities for JCPS includes opposition to offering tax credits to help families send their children to private schools.

Vandiver said he did not expect the late amendments to HB 563 as the final product was cobbled together on the House floor.

“We really did not know where this was going to go going into the debate, and when the statewide effort to include non-public schools failed to pass, we did not know that this was going to come back in any way,” he said, referring to an unsuccessful floor amendment to offer private school tuition aid as an allowable expense statewide in the education opportunity account program earlier in Thursday’s three-hour floor debate of HB 563.

Funding for full-day kindergarten was also “a total surprise to us,” Vandiver said.

Still, he said this version of HB 563 provides a first step in a path toward giving more choice for families in their children’s educations. If the program becomes law, it will “definitely change over time,” he said.

“When you look at other states, these programs are just wildly, wildly popular,” Vandiver said. “… Over time legislators are going to see that, and I think that maybe some of them let some of the hyperbole around this legislation get in their heads. My hope is once this program’s working and they can see the families that are benefiting, they'll change their minds and get behind it.”

EdChoice Kentucky had been neutral on HB 563 before Thursday’s changes, but the group now supports the measure in its current form, Vandiver said.

“While we wish all students in Kentucky could have access to comprehensive educational choice through HB 563, the bill is definitely a significant step in the right direction,” EdChoice Kentucky President Charles Leis said in a statement Friday.

Brewer, however, believes rural communities will suffer financially if HB 563 in its current form becomes law.

“The majority of that money will go to Catholic schools in Fayette, Jefferson and Kenton, and our mountain counties will continue to send their taxpaying dollars to Frankfort only to be distributed to the big urban areas, and they will continue to dwindle on the vine,” she said. “And it's sad. It's so sad.”

Both Vandiver and Brewer agree on one point: They think the House will support whatever changes the Senate makes to HB 563 if and when the upper chamber votes on the measure.

Lawmakers are scheduled to break before the session's veto break on Tuesday and conclude the 2021 session by March 30.

But Vandiver's and Brewer's rationales for their views on HB 563's legislative future differ.

“I'm confident that they'll do that because, once again, how can you pass this up?” Vandiver said. “This is going to be great for kids.”

“I’ve seen the House swallow a lot of the Senate’s filth,” Brewer said. “The House whimpers to the Senate and bows down to them at every turn.”

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