Amendment allowing public money for nonpublic schools breezes out of Senate committee

Kentucky Lantern

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A constitutional amendment that could pave the way for charter schools and publicly funded vouchers to attend private schools in Kentucky is one step closer to going on the November ballot.

The Senate Education Committee voted 11-2 in favor of House Bill 2 during a special meeting Thursday afternoon.

Kentucky Education Association President Eddie Campbell testified against the measure, calling it “a dangerous bill that is bad education policy, bad fiscal policy and bad public policy.” Campbell said it “does nothing to ensure that all students in Kentucky will receive a high quality public education.”

Testifying in favor of the amendment was Jim Waters, president of the Bluegrass Institute for Public Policy Solutions, who said, “We know from other states that the more choice parents have, the better their K-through-12 system performs.” Waters said charter schools have narrowed education gaps among minority students in Chicago and Washington, D.C. and that Kentucky will be able to avoid “pitfalls” by looking at other states’ experiences.

The amendment would lift the state Constitution’s prohibition against spending tax dollars for elementary and secondary education outside the “system of common schools.” It also suspends other constitutional provisions that could trip up future legislation sending public dollars to nonpublic schools. 

Senate President Robert Stivers noted that the proposed amendment would allow the legislature to authorize a charter school in an impoverished or underserved area, such as Louisville’s West End, something it cannot do now because of a constitutional prohibition on special legislation, which the amendment would change.

Republican Sens. Shelley Funke Frommeyer and Lindsey Tichenor pointed to public schools’ increases in student absenteeism and disappointing student performance in literacy and math as reasons to consider giving Kentuckians new education options.

Sen. Reggie Thomas, one of the two Democrats who voted no, raised concerns about potential effects on public school funding. He also objected to the way the bill has been moved through the legislature by committees meeting not at their regular times but late in the day on short notice. As a result, he said there has been “less attention, less notice, less input from the public.”

Education Committee Chair Republican Steven West defended the process, saying the bill was introduced in January and that “stakeholders have had ample opportunity to make their case.”  

Cindy Heine, representing the League of Women Voters of Kentucky, said the league “supports public education for all and the use of public schools” and opposes the amendment.

She said the organization had worked on a written statement of opposition but “with this last minute meeting” did not have it ready. “We will send it to you so it’s on the record.”

“The good thing about this bill is the people will get to decide,” Heine said. “Your decision to put it on the ballot allows the public to make this decision.”

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