Kentucky State Capitol

FRANKFORT, Ky. (WDRB) -- The push to create a tuition-assistance program for private-school students reemerged Tuesday as a House Republican leader filed a bill that would allow donors to claim big tax breaks for giving to scholarship groups.

House Bill 205, sponsored by House Majority Floor Leader John "Bam" Carney, largely mirrors past versions of the legislation, which last year did not clear committees in either chamber. 

Despite failing to pass scholarship tax credit bills in the past, Carney, R-Campbellsville, hopes that changes in this year's legislative session.

Carney, who sponsored a similar bill last year, sees momentum in efforts to expand school choice in Kentucky, saying he is “very confident" HB 205 will pass the General Assembly. Lawmakers know that many potential donors “are waiting to contribute now, he said.

“More and more people are learning facts about the issue,” Carney told reporters in the Capitol Annex. “… This is a chance for families who traditionally don’t have these options.”

Donors to nonprofit scholarship-granting organizations would get tax breaks worth 95 percent of their contributions up to $1 million under HB 205. Those who make multi-year donations can get 97 percent back if they commit to four-year donation cycles in which their contributions are either divided equally or gradually increase each year, according to the bill.

HB 205 would also limit scholarship awards to $25 million statewide in fiscal year 2020, an amount that would automatically increase 25 percent in the subsequent year if at least 90 percent of the cap was spent.

Students would be awarded the scholarships first based on whether they or their siblings received the financial aid in the previous year, with a lottery held if there's not enough money to cover past recipients.

First-time recipients given priority in HB 205 are those who are in foster care, have special needs or disabilities, or qualify for free or reduced-price school meals. Students from families whose annual household income isn't more than 200 percent above the federal threshold for free or reduced-price lunches are also eligible for the scholarships, according to the bill.

Representatives of EdChoice Kentucky, a chief supporter of the scholarship tax credit bill, also shared Carney's confidence that their efforts will be successful this session.

“I think lawmakers understand better than ever that this is an issue about kids and that essentially what we’re trying to do is to make sure that every Kentucky has great educational options,” said Gary Houchens, a member of the Kentucky Board of Education who also serves on EdChoice Kentucky’s board of directors. “Not every school, no matter how good a school is, can perfectly meet the needs of every kid.”

Charles Leis, president of EdChoice Kentucky, said in the Louisville area alone, the two scholarship-granting organizations reported receiving applications totaling $21 million for aid and only doling out $3 million available for tuition assistance.

That demonstrates a need that isn’t being addressed, he said.

“These are kids that aren’t functioning well in whatever schools they’re in,” Leis told WDRB News. “… What this does is try to incentivize people throughout the commonwealth to give to these scholarship-granting organizations.”

Carney said HB 205, if passed, would likely help send about 1 percent of current public school students to private schools and not financially hinder traditional public schools despite claims otherwise.

Opponents have said the bill will further erode available resources for Kentucky’s public schools, especially since state funding largely hinges on enrollment.

Stephanie Winkler, president of the Kentucky Education Association, said the bill would not only cut per-pupil funding for schools throughout the state, but also allow donors to dictate which schools benefited from their tax dollars.

“That’s unfair to public school students and the schools our educators work to teach them in,” Winkler said in a statement. “This bill is nothing more than a back door charter-school funding mechanism.”

Carney argued that investing in tax-credit scholarships would become an economic boon in the future as kids are more successful in school and find employment in Kentucky.

State Budget Director John Chilton has indicated that the state has $25 million to cover the initial round of credits, Carney said.

Carney said the legislation has garnered bipartisan support in the lower chamber, though he declined to cite a specific number of Democrats who favor tax-credit scholarships.

As a revenue bill in a non-budget session, the legislation will need at least 60 percent support in the House and Senate to land on Gov. Matt Bevin’s desk. Republicans hold supermajorities in both chambers, with the GOP holding 61 seats in the House.

“It’s premature to say exactly how many, but it’s a substantial number,” Carney said when asked about Democratic support for the tax-credit scholarship bill.

House Minority Floor Leader Rocky Adkins, a Sandy Hook Democrat who is running for his party’s gubernatorial nomination, said he has “serious reservations” about tax-credit scholarships, similar to his concerns about charter-school funding.

“At a time when public education is underfunded, these proposed initiatives would take away even more money from our schools throughout Kentucky,” Adkins said in a statement. “I believe we should focus on ways to properly fund public education, rather than approve measures that undercut it.”

Reach reporter Kevin Wheatley at 502-585-0838 and Follow him on Twitter @KevinWheatleyKY.

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