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Kentucky lawmaker files bill to allow government funding of private schools

A man in a suit and tie speaks before a microphone with his hands raised in a gesture.
LRC Public Information
Republican Rep. Josh Calloway, of Irvington.

A measure that would open the door to taxpayer funding of private school tuition was revived Tuesday by Republican Rep. Josh Calloway of Irvington.

House Bill 208 would amend parts of the Kentucky Constitution that have so far foiled efforts by some Republicans to fund a private school scholarship program and other educational programs outside the public school system.

HB 208 says the General Assembly “shall … provide for a portion of educational costs for parents of students outside of that common school system.” “Common schools” is the constitution’s language for public schools.

The measure also says that certain sections of the constitution “shall not prevent, nor require a further referendum for, any provision for the educational costs of students outside of the system of common schools for parents of limited financial means.”

Previous private school scholarship and charter school measures have faltered on those sections of the constitution, which judges say prevent taxpayer funds from being spent on private K-12 schools.

Judges who struck down previous school privatization efforts cited Section 184, which says “no sum shall be raised or collected for education other than in the common schools,” unless voters approve the appropriation in a referendum.

Calloway's constitutional amendment faces steep hurdles to become law. Because it seeks to change the Kentucky Constitution, both chambers must pass the bill with a three-fifths majority. Then voters must approve the change in a statewide referendum.

Calloway told LPM News he’s bringing the measure as a result of the Kentucky Supreme Court’s ruling against a 2021 tax-credit scholarship program, which was meant to help some families pay for private school. The court said the program failed to pass muster with Section 184 of the constitution, among other provisions.

“They struck that down, said that we needed to put this to the ballot, and let the people weigh in on it based on the constitution. So that's really what this bill does,” Calloway said.

He and other supporters say the amendment would allow the state to help families pay for private school tuition that only wealth families can afford.

"I believe this opens the door for us to start the process of giving other educational choices to fit the need of every single child in the state of Kentucky," Calloway said.

Calloway’s bill is similar to a proposal that died last year before receiving a floor vote.

This session, Republican leaders have signaled more interest in taking up proposals to expand state support for nonpublic schools, a policy many advocates refer to as “school choice” or “educational freedom.”

However, as of Wednesday, no members of leadership had signed onto Calloway’s bill as a cosponsor, and House Education Committee Chair Rep. James Titpon said he was “not aware” that HB 208 was going to be filed Tuesday.

“We have until late February to file bills so I will wait to see what else might be filed before I might commit to a specific piece of legislation,” he said by email.

In an email, Kentucky Education Association president Eddie Campbell opposed the measure.

“KEA supports the Kentucky constitution and its clear language that taxpayer dollars only go to fund public, common schools that are open and accepting to every child in the commonwealth. Public tax dollars should be spent on the public good, including public schools, not on private schools that can decide which students they want to accept or deny into their classrooms,” Campbell said in a statement emailed to LPM by a KEA spokesperson.

Brent McKim, president of the Jefferson County Teachers Association, also opposed Calloway’s proposal.

“Our public taxes should not pay for schools that are not accountable to the public, either for their finances or even for student learning outcomes. Yet, House Bill 208 proposes amending the state constitution to make all this possible,” McKim said in an email to LPM.

Calloway faced criticism for bringing the constitutional amendment last year over his affiliation with Pleasant View Baptist Church School. On the House floor last spring, Calloway said an ethics complaint had been filed against him alleging a conflict of interest.

The Legislative Ethics Commission denied LPM’s records request for the complaint in March, and refused to confirm the existence of the inquiry. That’s even though state law says the LEC “may” hand over those records once the subject of the complaint has publicly acknowledged the existence of the inquiry.

“The statute says ‘may’ and therefore we are not confirming the filing of a complaint,’” LEC attorney Emily Dennis told LPM by email in March.

Asked to respond to the alleged conflict of interest, Calloway told LPM HB 208 “doesn't do anything for me.”

“I don't have a school, and all of my kids are actually graduated,” he said. “This is for every single kid in the state of Kentucky to be able to take advantage of and it's to empower parents to be able to do that.”

A church web page lists Calloway as a 2018-2019 member of the board of the Pleasant View Baptist Church School.

Support for this story was provided in part by the Jewish Heritage Fund.

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Jess Clark is LPMs Education and Learning Reporter. Email Jess at jclark@lpm.org.