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Republican lawmakers promise a “school choice” amendment will come up in Kentucky’s legislative session

Stone building on right with dome, trees on left blue sky.
Ryland Barton
The Kentucky State Capitol in Frankfort.

Conservative legislators have long pushed for “school choice” measures, like charter schools and scholarship tax credits, but a provision in the state constitution banning public education dollars from being spent on entities besides “common schools” has hamstrung their efforts.

Now Republican leaders say they plan to amend the state’s fundamental document to allow such programs.

School choice is a fraught issue within Kentucky’s Republican-led legislature. While lawmakers have passed measures like charter schools or private school scholarship tax credits before, they often scoot by with razor-thin margins and have been unable to survive legal challenges on state constitutional grounds.

But now GOP legislative leaders say they want to change the constitution to permit such programs.

During a forum hosted by the Kentucky Chamber of Commerce, Republican House Majority Leader Steven Rudy of Paducah said he’s not sure the amendment would be able to pass the House, but he sees discussion around it as inevitable this session.

“I don't know if we'll get the votes to be able to proceed with [an amendment],” Rudy said. “But I think that conversation will take place, and I’d say the chances of that happening are greater than they've ever been.”

In order to become law, a constitutional amendment has to be approved by three-fifths of each legislative chamber and a majority of Kentucky voters during a referendum.

If the legislature were to pass and then voters approved an amendment to the state constitution legalizing the appropriation of state funds to private schools, then it would open the door to things like charter schools, voucher systems and scholarship tax credits in the state.

Republican Senate Majority Floor Leader Damon Thayer said passing a school choice amendment is the “big, conservative Republican issue that we haven't put to bed.”

“I think parents deserve to have choices about where they send their child to school,” Thayer said. “I think we need to make it more affordable for low income and middle income families to send their kids to private school if they choose to do so.”

But while Thayer painted it as a conservative priority, a number of Republican legislators have historically opposed anything that could suck money or students out of traditional public schools.

Rep. Killian Timoney, a Republican from Nicholasville, said he believes calling it “school choice” is misleading, comparing it to offering voters ice cream without giving all the details.

“Everyone likes ice cream. But road kill flavored ice cream? Maybe not,” he said.

Timoney said school choice programs would siphon money from public schools and give them to private institutions. He worried private school teachers and employers wouldn’t pay into the state’s ailing pension system, and wondered if private schools wouldn’t poach the best teachers and administrators from schools already struggling to fill vacancies.

Sen. Steve West, a Republican from Paris, said he believes school choice measures would level the playing field for students who can’t afford expensive private school tuition while leaving the option of public school open.

“We’re not looking at school choice as an either/or proposition,” West said. “We have to recognize that choice already exists for parents with financial means.”

West said a private school scholarship tax credit program would benefit public schools as well as private ones by reducing the number of students cash-strapped schools are responsible for.

Advocates point out that traditional public schools have a long list of fixed expenses including upkeep of facilities, student services and employees. Democratic Gov. Andy Beshear said money destined for public schools shouldn’t end up in the hands of private companies who manage charters.

“I oppose vouchers 100%. They steal money from our public schools and send them to our private schools,” Beshear said at a debate prior to his reelection.

Beshear’s Republican challenger, Attorney General Daniel Cameron, avoided talking about school choice on the campaign trail, though he accused Beshear of “hating private schools. That may be because supporting school vouchers and private school scholarship tax credits is a thorny issue with both political parties.

The state legislature has struggled to pass school choice measures, slipping them through with the bare minimum of votes.

In the legislature’s last attempt, a 2021 measure that would have allowed individuals and corporations to donate to private school scholarship funds and receive a tax credit of up to 97%, passed the House of Representatives by just one vote, with a number of Republicans — including Timoney — voting against. The legislation was later struck down by the Kentucky Supreme Court.

The state constitution, as it currently stands, says that any tax revenue or other sources of public school funding may only “be appropriated to the common schools, and to no other purpose.”

Rep. Tina Bojanowski, a Democrat from Louisville, said she is certain a school choice amendment will not only be introduced in the upcoming session, but that it will make it onto the ballot.

“There will be Republicans who vote against having this constitutional amendment. But I don't know that it even matters if we work across party lines, if they have the votes to pass it,” Bojanowski said. “The push for school choice will be very strong. And I think that if it ends up passing, it will be detrimental to our traditional public schools.”

Bojanowski, a special education teacher at Watterson Elementary, said she is less certain voters will support such a change. The same pro-public school agenda that assured Beshear his victory could make such an amendment unpalatable to voters. She said she worried such programs would allow public education funding to go to private schools that turn away children with same-sex parents or special needs.

“We're starting another system. We’ll have the public school system, which is obligated and has a duty to educate all of our children. And we'll have private schools and religious schools that will also be funded with taxpayer dollars with no transparency and no accountability to the government.“ Bojanowski said, “I don't think public tax dollars should be spent on programs that discriminate.”

Sylvia is the Capitol reporter for Kentucky Public Radio, a collaboration including Louisville Public Media, WEKU-Lexington, WKU Public Radio and WKMS-Murray. Email her at sgoodman@lpm.org.

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