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Daviess Co. lawmaker files bill to put school choice on the statewide ballot in November

During the 2020-2021 school year, rates of chronic absenteeism nearly doubled in Kentucky.
Thomas Galvez | Creative Commons
During the 2020-2021 school year, rates of chronic absenteeism nearly doubled in Kentucky.

A prominent Kentucky lawmaker filed a school choice bill Friday seeking to remove constitutional barriers blocking the state from assisting parents who want to enroll their children in private or charter schools.

The proposed constitutional amendment was introduced by Owensboro Rep. Suzanne Miles, a member of House Republican leadership. It was designated as House Bill 2, signifying its importance to GOP leaders. If the measure passes the Republican-dominated legislature, it would go on the November ballot.

“This has been a conversation for really multiple decades now, so I think it’s time for us to let the voters decide,” Miles told reporters.

The bill was filed a day after school choice supporters rallied at the statehouse and House Education Committee Chairman James Tipton predicted that a school choice proposal would reach the fall ballot.

Miles’ bill would allow for state money to help fund enrollment at private and charter schools. Court decisions in Kentucky have ruled that public tax dollars must be spent on the state’s “common” schools — interpreted as public schools — and cannot be diverted to charter or private schools.

The Kentucky Education Association, a labor association representing tens of thousands of public school educators, has signaled it's ready to fight back against any school choice proposal. The KEA has a powerful ally in Democratic Gov. Andy Beshear, who has promised to join the fight. Beshear won a convincing reelection victory last November in Republican-leaning Kentucky.

The KEA warned Thursday that a school choice measure would hurt every public school by diverting badly needed state money away from those schools. Supporters of a ballot measure say it would give economically disadvantaged families options to send their children to schools that best fit their needs.

The push for a constitutional amendment gained steam after the courts struck down school choice laws.

“We’ve continued to bounce around what is allowable and what is not allowable and this just purely defines that we have the authority to make policy," Republican House Speaker David Osborne said in promoting HB2 on Friday. "It does not establish any policy but gives absolute clarification that we have the authority to make policy.”

Miles said her proposal would let Kentucky voters decide if they want to "modernize our education system.”

If statewide voters ratified such a school choice constitutional amendment, lawmakers could follow up as soon as 2025 with legislation to “move the effort of education and choice forward in Kentucky,” Tipton said Thursday. He didn’t offer any specifics about what that might include, nor did Osborne.

In 2022, Kentucky’s Supreme Court struck down a measure passed by GOP lawmakers to award tax credits for donations supporting private school tuition.

Last year, a circuit court judge struck down another measure that set up a funding method for charter schools. The decision stymied efforts to give such schools a foothold in the Bluegrass State. Those schools would be operated by independent groups with fewer regulations than most public schools.

With no election for statewide office on the Kentucky ballot this November, a school choice ballot measure would turn into an expensive, hard-fought campaign drawing considerable attention.

The KEA says lawmakers should focus solely on bolstering public education by raising teacher salaries, fully funding student transportation and ensuring access to preschool for every Kentucky 4-year-old.

"Once taxpayers understand the negative impact this bill and amendment could mean to their public schools, we are confident they will reject it,” KEA President Eddie Campbell said Thursday.

Tipton has pointed to overall lagging test scores for minority and economically disadvantaged students in public schools as a driving force behind putting a school choice proposal on the ballot.

"You deserve an opportunity to help your children succeed, and that’s what we intend to do,” he said.