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Kentucky moves a step closer to funding private school tuition

Adults in suits and professional attire sit at stately wooden desks in rows. A man in a suit is facing them from behind a large wooden podium on a raised dais.
Jess Clark
Kentucky House lawmakers debated House Bill 2, which would allow the state to send tax dollars to private schools.

A divisive measure that would allow state lawmakers to fund private schools and charter schools passed the state House Wednesday.

Kentucky is a step closer to allowing tax dollars to flow to private and charter schools after a controversial bill made it through the state House Wednesday.

House Bill 2 would change the state constitution and open the door for lawmakers to use public funds on private, religious and charter schools. Language in the state’s 1891 constitution has so far hampered Republican efforts to fund so-called “school choice” initiatives.

HB 2’s sponsor, Republican Rep. Suzanne Miles of Owensboro, argued the education provisions in the state’s founding document are dated.

“I know every single one of you, all that have children on this floor, can verify that not every child is identical. Not every child learns the same. We are in a different time and place,” she said.

During floor debate, Democrats and some rural Republicans tried to explain their opposition to HB 2, but were frequently cut off by Republican House Speaker David Osborne, who ruled their comments out of order, especially at the mention of private schools or school funding.

Osborne claimed opponents' objections to the potential impacts of HB 2 were not relevant to the topic, because, he said, the matter before the body was a constitutional amendment, and “not a policy question.”

Democrats cried foul.

“This is a turning point in the direction of the Commonwealth of Kentucky, of the education of our children and the future of this commonwealth,” Lexington Democratic Rep. George Brown, Jr. said after he was repeatedly cut off by Osborne.

“I think that limited discussion-slash-debate on this issue is detrimental to the future of the Commonwealth of Kentucky,” Brown said.

Miles, the Republican sponsor, was careful in choosing her words during the debate, referring to educational “options” and “possibilities,” rather than private schools. However, she admitted during Tuesday’s surprise committee meeting that the measure may allow lawmakers to revive a private scholarship program ruled unconstitutional by the Kentucky Supreme Court.

Other Republican supporters were less guarded in their comments.

“We pass these pro-school-choice bills, and the courts kick them out. So this is the only next step is let the people decide what direction the state wants to go,” Louisville Republican Rep. Kevin Bratcher said.

The measure passed 65-32, after more than two hours of floor debate. Many rural Republicans joined all the chamber’s Democrats in opposition, including House Education Committee Vice Chair Rep. Timmy Truett.

Truett, a Republican and a school principal, began to argue that the funding of private school students could divert money from his elementary school in McKee in rural eastern Kentucky. But he was ruled out of order by Osborne.

Republican Rep. Chris Fugate, of Chavies, called on lawmakers to rebuild flood-damaged schools eastern Kentucky before sending money to private institutions.

“We still have education buildings that have not been restored and most likely never will be unless the General Assembly appropriates money in the budget to fill those needs,” he said. He was also eventually ruled out of order.

Fugate said eastern Kentuckians still need hundreds of millions of dollars needed to rebuild educational facilities after the floods of 2022. It means many students in Breathitt and Perry counties have to attend school far from home — sometimes in other counties.

“My people deserve their schools to be fixed before we fund other schools,” Fugate said, noting that the state has a record $3.7 billion in budget reserves.

After passage, HB 2 got a first reading in the Senate late Wednesday. It is to be considered in a special meeting of the Senate Education Committee Thursday upon adjournment of the Senate in Capitol Annex room 171.

If HB 2 passes the state Senate, it will need to be ratified by a majority of voters in a statewide referendum in November

This story has been updated to include a new hearing time for HB 2.

State government and politics reporting is supported in part by the Corporation for Public Broadcasting.

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

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