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Ky. Lawmakers approve private and charter school funding amendment, sending question to voters

The exterior of a stately stone building. One side is covered in scaffolding and under construction. The sky is clear blue.
Jess Clark
/
LPM
The Kentucky State Capitol Building

The GOP-led General Assembly is sending a question to voters that could change the trajectory of education in Kentucky. For better or for worse? It depends on who you ask.

Kentucky voters will likely have the chance to decide in November whether state lawmakers can spend tax dollars on private and charter schooling. That’s after the state Senate voted 27-8 on final passage of House Bill 2 Friday.

Votes were cast mostly along party lines, with Republican Sen. Phillip Wheeler of Pikeville joining all the chamber’s Democrats in opposition.

HB 2, one of the most controversial measures of the session, will put a question on the November ballot asking if voters want lawmakers to change the Kentucky Constitution so that they can “provide financial support for the education of students outside the system of common schools.”

“Common schools” is the constitution’s language for public K-12 schools.

Senate Education Committee Chair Stephen West, a Republican from Paris, Ky., said the state has a “problem” of persistently low test scores in some public schools.

“What have we got to lose?” West asked on the Senate floor Friday. “If I did that in business, I’d go out of business … we’ve got to try new things.”

Senate Majority Floor Leader Damon Thayer, a Republican, noted that most other states have “school choice” initiatives. That’s the terminology advocates use for charter schools and state programs that help families pay for private school tuition.

“The people of the commonwealth deserve to have the chance to open up more opportunities for low-income and middle-class families who are looking for different options for their kids,” he said.

Democratic opponents of the measure argue HB 2 will allow lawmakers to siphon funding from the state’s existing public schools to pay for private education.

Rather than funding a new network of schools, Democrats said lawmakers should invest in the existing public school system.

“We’ve been given a great opportunity now in this budget to really do some amazing things,” Lexington Democratic Sen. Reggie Thomas said, referring to the record $3.7 billion in savings the state has stockpiled over the past three years. He advocated to raise teacher pay and fund universal pre-K, two initiatives in Democratic Gov. Andy Beshear’s budget proposal.

Democratic Sen. Karen Berg, of Louisville, noted that the proposed budget ignores the Legislature’s statutory requirements to fund textbooks and classroom materials.

“We don’t pay for books in this state,” Berg said. “What are we doing? Every single one of my Republican colleagues wants to say ‘we are failing, public education is failing, we are failing, we are failing.’ But yet nobody is willing to do the work to fix it.”

Opponents were also critical of the process by which Republican leaders thrust HB 2 through the General Assembly in a whirlwind week.

The measure first got consideration in a surprise House committee meeting late Tuesday afternoon. With little notice, few supporters or opponents were able to make it to Frankfort in time to testify.

Republican House Speaker David Osborne, of Prospect, restricted what opponents could say on the House floor about the measure, often cutting off Democrats and rural Republicans who mentioned the anticipated financial impacts of the amendment on public schools.

The measure then got a hearing in an unexpected meeting of the Senate Education Committee Thursday. Few members of the public were there. Lexington Democratic Sen. Reggie Thomas noted that the same committee met that morning at its regularly scheduled 11 a.m. time when dozens of members of the public were present.

“And yet we did not bring this bill – this very important policy bill — before that [Senate] Education committee for debate. We waited until late in the day, when there’d be less attention and less notice to discuss this bill,” Thomas told the committee during its special meeting Thursday afternoon.

Republican committee chair West countered that notice of special meeting upon adjournment had been posted since that morning on the public calendar.

“I believe we’ve had good process on this bill, and stakeholders have had ample opportunity to make their case,” he said.

Bill negates seven sections of state constitution

The ballot question asks voters’ permission to “notwithstand” — or ignore — several provisions of the state constitution that prevent public funding of private and religious schools. The measure also asks voters’ permission to ignore constitutional provisions prohibiting “special legislation,” or laws targeted at specific geographical areas.

Most of the seven constitutional provisions HB 2 seeks to ignore have been cited by the state courts in decisions overturning previous efforts by lawmakers to send tax dollars to private schools and charter schools.

“The General Assembly may exercise this authority by law, Sections 59, 60, 171, 183, 184, 186, and 189 of this Constitution notwithstanding,” the ballot measure reads.

Democrats in both chambers have argued that the language in the ballot question isn’t transparent enough, since the constitutional sections it asks voters to ignore are referred to by number only.

Speaking on the House floor Wednesday, Louisville Democratic Rep. Josie Raymond said when Democrats asked the bill’s House sponsor Republican Rep. Suzanne Miles about the negated sections, Miles told them to “look them up.”

“Is that the same thing we’re going to tell voters at the polling place? Google it?” Raymond said.

Because HB 2 is a constitutional amendment, it is not subject to the governor’s veto, though Democratic Gov. Andy Beshear has vowed to fight the change.

The question is among a flurry of constitutional changes considered this legislative session.

Lawmakers will have to whittle down which four measures will make the final cut — a maximum of four questions can appear on the November ballot under state law.

Correction: A previous version of the story incorrectly identified the first name of the Senate Education Committee Chair

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

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