Kentucky House Chamber

Kentucky House Chamber

LOUISVILLE, Ky. (WDRB) -- First came the sweeping school shutdowns at the onset of the COVID-19 pandemic that led to an uptick in public support for expanding educational choice, according to one EdChoice Kentucky official.

Then voters throughout Kentucky delivered up to 13 new Republicans to the state’s House of Representatives in Tuesday’s election based on preliminary results, potentially padding the GOP’s supermajority in the lower chamber to 75 members. County clerks will accept mailed absentee ballots postmarked Tuesday or earlier until close of business Friday.

The evolving political landscape has given new hope to EdChoice Kentucky as it forms its latest pitch to lawmakers in next year’s legislative session.

“It’s still early,” said Andrew Vandiver, vice president of EdChoice Kentucky. “I think we obviously have a lot of work to do ahead of us, but I think the votes are there. I think the desire is there among the public, and so I think there’s a lot of good reason to be optimistic.”

Vandiver said the organization is working on a bill draft for education opportunity accounts, an expanded version of its scholarship tax credit proposal that has stalled in the House amid opposition from the Kentucky Education Association and other like-minded public education groups.

Rather than simply allowing families to spend scholarship money on private-school tuition, the proposed accounts can also cover expenses for wraparound services for students with special needs, dual-credit courses, tuition for nearby public-school districts and more, he said.

The proposal “allows us to broaden the concept of choice” beyond simply which schools families want for their children, Vandiver  said.

“It’s also the wraparound services we give kids,” he said. “It’s a dual-credit for college. It’s career and technical training. I think just really expanding the way we talk about the issue is going to be one big difference.”

Vandiver expects the legislation for education opportunity accounts will likely be similar financially to the most recent tax credit scholarship bills, which included up to $25 million in tax credits initially for donors to groups that dole out funds to families. That cap would have grown by 25% if donations totaled 90% of the limit.

Donors could have recouped 95% of their contributions for up to $1 million in income tax credit. Families earning up to 200% of the threshold to qualify for reduced-price meals, or $96,940 per year for a family of four in the current school year based on federal guidelines, would be eligible, though foster students, those with special needs and those in households eligible for free or reduced-price meals would have been prioritized among first-time recipients.

Families of four can earn up to $48,470 annually to qualify for free or reduced-price meals.

KEA has vehemently opposed choice initiatives, though how that opposition will fare in next year’s legislative session, particularly in the House, remains to be seen.

KEA President Eddie Campbell said with up to 13 new Republicans in the legislature, the organization will focus on forging and developing relationships with lawmakers in the upcoming session.

“We have a responsibility as a commonwealth to fund our public schools and to ensure that students have that high-quality education, so I think as we move into the session, being able to work and grow with all of the legislators, old ones and new ones that are coming in, will be vitally important to ensuring that our public schools are funded and fully funded the way they need to be,” Campbell said.

Of the 13 districts that flipped from Democratic to Republican control, the Kentucky Educators’ Political Action Committee endorsed 11 Democrats who lost their bids.

Three of the 13 Republicans who won – John Dixon of Henderson, Shawn McPherson of Scottsville and Patrick Flannery of Olive Hill – were either identified as against school choice or mixed on the issue in voter guides compiled by the conservative Commonwealth Policy Center.

“That’s just part of the political process,” Campbell said when asked whether such endorsements will impact KEA’s ability to engage freshmen Republicans. “Once people are elected, building that relationship becomes more of a one-on-one interaction, having conversations.

“When we start talking about public schools and we talk about students and we talk about educators who are serving the community and those students in those public schools, we find oftentimes that we often agree on a lot of things.”

KEA’s political arm also endorsed 16 Democrats who unsuccessfully ran in GOP districts and seven Republicans who won their reelection campaigns.

Whether lawmakers will approve education opportunity accounts or other school choice measures like funding charter schools in the upcoming 30-day session is unclear.

The legislature will need to finalize the second year of the biennial budget after the coronavirus pandemic upended this year’s session.

Some legislative leaders have also indicated their desire to address gubernatorial powers during a public health emergency following Gov. Andy Beshear’s directives meant to mitigate the spread of COVID-19 by restricting public gathering, such as initially closing restaurants and bars to in-person dining and drinking.

Beshear’s COVID-19 executive orders are at the center of a Kentucky Supreme Court battle between his administration and Attorney General Daniel Cameron’s office. A federal judge previously blocked enforcement of Beshear’s ban on in-person church services in May.

House Speaker David Osborne’s office did not immediately respond to a message seeking comment on whether he will prioritize school choice legislation in the upcoming session.

Vandiver said lawmakers cannot afford to push school choice aside again in the 2021 session. An August poll conducted for EdChoice Kentucky by Cygnal, a research firm based in Washington, D.C., found that 76.7% of its 620 respondents in rural congressional districts, which excluded the 3rd Congressional District that includes Louisville and the 6th Congressional District that includes Lexington, either strongly or somewhat supported the concept of educational choice.

“Every year we kick the can down the road, you have more and more kids falling behind, and it’s not any different this year,” he said.

“In fact, it’s even more relevant this year because you have families who maybe would normally be sending their child to a non-public schools, but because their parents lost their jobs they can’t afford it. You have students who are doing (nontraditional instruction) and that’s just not working for them, and they need another option.”

Campbell, however, isn’t so certain that lawmakers will consider school choice legislation when they convene in January for what is “going to be an interesting session,” he said.

“We review bills that impact public education,” he said. “We’ll review those one at a time and then begin our work advocating for students and educators in our public schools all across the commonwealth.”

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