Hazard event kicks off campaign against what foes call the ‘voucher amendment’

Republished from Kentucky Lantern

Fresh off Kentucky’s primary election, opponents are launching a campaign against a constitutional amendment that will go before voters in November and would allow the General Assembly to fund nonpublic schools. 

In the first of a series of “kickoffs” scheduled across the state, opponents of Amendment 2 gathered Thursday at East Perry Elementary School in Hazard. They argued the amendment’s passage would mean fewer dollars for Kentucky’s public schools, lead to fewer resources for students and exacerbate the statewide teacher shortage — particularly in rural communities.

“The Kentucky Constitution is the last line of defense that is protecting us from unaccountable and inequitable voucher schemes that would plague our state and devastate our public schools,” said Jody Maggard, Perry County Public Schools’ chief financial officer. 

Maggard said that if Amendment 2 passed, public schools would have to “do more with less.” 

Thursday’s event was organized by Protect Our Schools KY, which is a coalition of public education advocates and organizations aimed at defeating what was repeatedly dubbed “the voucher amendment” by speakers. The political issue committee is comprised of Council for Better Education, Jefferson County Teachers’ Association, Kentucky Education Association, Fairness, the Kentucky Student Voice Team and the Kentucky Parent Teacher Association. The event was livestreamed on Facebook

Misgivings among Republican rural lawmakers

Earlier this year, the Republican-controlled General Assembly approved putting the constitutional amendment to a vote this November. Members of GOP leadership often argued that approving the amendment would allow parents to have greater choice over their children’s schooling and modernize Kentucky’s education system. 

Senate Republican Floor Leader Damon Thayer, who is not seeking reelection, previously said he will be “very vocal” on convincing Kentucky voters to pass Amendment 2. After this year’s legislative session ended, he said in a press conference that the amendment “has a very good chance to pass but I’m also not naive.” He added that a lot of dollars will be spent trying to defeat the measure.

Rep. Chris Fugate, R-Chavies. (LRC Public Information)

Nevertheless, some rural Republican lawmakers appeared hesitant to support the amendment due to the possibility of leaving existing public schools with a smaller pot of funding. During floor debate, Eastern Kentucky Rep. Chris Fugate, of Chavies, said he was voting against the amendment because school buildings within his district had not been restored since devastating floods slammed Eastern Kentucky and added they likely would never be rebuilt without funding from the General Assembly. Perry County is in Fugate’s district. 

‘Heartbeat of our communities’

Some speakers on Thursday recalled the effects those floods and their aftermath had on schools within the region. Maggard said East Perry Elementary was a distribution site for the community to receive items like food, clothing, cleaning supplies and more. The elementary school enrolls about 700 students in preschool through eighth grade. 

“Our public schools served as the heartbeat of our communities during the flood relief effort. We here in Perry County, and I know in other areas of the region, took that literally,” he said. “From providing a high quality education to every student that walks in the doors, to being a lifeline to kids who may need support throughout the year, to many times providing the basic needs of those in our community when they need it the most, our public schools and public education serve a vital purpose for our commonwealth and they bring us all together.” 

Sawyer Noe, a recent graduate of Knott County High School, called public schools “the last remaining equalizer in society.” Noe, who worked on flood relief in the region, said public schools were not just recovery hubs at the time, but became “the heart of a community.” 

“For so many students in a wildly underserved, culturally-isolated, infamously-impoverished region such as Appalachia, public schools are the single greatest catalyst for success and for so many — far too many — the only one,” Noe said. 

While the governor cannot veto constitutional amendments, Gov. Andy Beshear has been leading Democratic opposition to Amendment 2. During his 2023 reelection campaign, Beshear often pressed his Republican opponent, former Attorney General Daniel Cameron, about support of school vouchers

Democratic legislative leaders have also signaled resistance to passing the amendment. After lawmakers adjourned in Frankfort, Democratic Caucus Chair Rep. Cherlynn Stevenson, of Lexington, predicted the amendment will fail, adding that Democrats must “respond loud and clear in November that public taxpayer dollars do not belong in private schools.” 

The proposed amendment, which was known in the General Assembly as House Bill 2, is the Republican supermajority’s answer to courts striking down charter school legislation while citing the Kentucky Constitution’s provision for funding “common schools,” or public schools. Currently, the Kentucky Constitution bars using tax dollars to fund any but the state’s “common schools.” 

Tiffany Combs, who is an instructional coach in Perry County Public Schools, said she became the first person in her family to earn a college degree, thanks to motivation from one of her middle school teachers. 

“Public schools are more than just an education for most students,” she said. “It’s a lifeline — just like it was for me.” 

Kentucky Lantern is part of States Newsroom, a network of news bureaus supported by grants and a coalition of donors as a 501c(3) public charity. Kentucky Lantern maintains editorial independence. Contact Editor Jamie Lucke for questions: info@kentuckylantern.com. Follow Kentucky Lantern on Facebook and Twitter. Kentucky Lantern stories may be republished online or in print under Creative Commons license CC BY-NC-ND 4.0.

Donate to Kentucky Lantern here.