Bill on school choice passes both Senate and House on Tuesday

Posted at 5:37 PM, Mar 16, 2021
and last updated 2021-03-16 23:18:15-04

UPDATE: HB 563, also referred to as the school choice bill, passed in both the Senate and the House on Tuesday. It will now move on to Gov. Andy Beshear's office where it is believed it will get vetoed.

Public school supporters normally fight back in-person when pension reform and school choice are up for votes in Frankfort. But this year, Kentucky's Capitol is closed to the public because of COVID-19, so the halls are empty. However, the bills dealing with those issues are still moving through.

"It's a really big day," said Andrew Vandiver with EdChoice Kentucky, a group that supports school choice.

After years of fighting for school choice, EdChoice Kentucky hoped to see it become law Tuesday.

"It's just about fairness," said Vandiver. "Trying to make sure that low to middle-income families have the same choice and opportunities that upper-income families have."

House Bill 563, 2021's school choice bill, would create a tax-credit scholarship fund in Kentucky. That money could then be used to let kids go to schools other than their local public school.

Parents in favor of school choice say it would take the financial burden off some families struggling to pay for other types of schools.

"Home school isn't for every child. Private school isn't for every child. Public school isn't for every child," said Akia McNeary Sullivan, a school choice parent. "That's why we as parents need options so we can find the right school that fits our kids' needs."

But public education supporters believe the bill creates a voucher system that takes money away from already underfunded public schools.

"So-called 'education opportunity accounts' are just another term for private-school vouchers," said KEA President Eddie Campbell. "This is another example of legislators sneaking in an unpopular issue disguised as something else, just like the infamous 'sewer' bill in 2018."

"Vote no on HB 563 or any plan that will fund vouchers or tax credits and take funding away from our public schools," said Campbell.

Public education supporters don't support using the fund to pay for private school tuition. The bill was supposed to prohibit funding private school tuition, but the Kentucky House allowed Fayette, Jefferson, and Kenton counties to use the fund for private school tuition. The Senate Appropriations and Revenue Committee also proposed adding in other counties with populations of more than 90,000 people.

120Strong, a pro-public education group, has voiced skepticism about the intentions behind the bill.

"This is nothing more than 2021 version of white flight," said Penny Christian during a live video on 120Strong's Facebook page. "Because what you're doing is using scare tactics and dog whistles to talk about these rural schools and these bad schools, with those bad kids, that nobody can help, and nobody can fix. Here's your way to get out of that and into this better program and this better school. And we know what those are code for, right?"

Pro-school choice supporters say they know public educators have concerns, but they believe it's time to give Kentucky families choices.

"I think they're just too locked into the past. School Choice has been around for decades in other states," said Vandiver. "It's working for kids. Public schools are doing well. Kids that use these programs are doing well."

When it comes to pension reform, the Kentucky General Assembly passed House Bill 258 on Tuesday. The bill moves teachers hired on or after Jan. 1, 2022 into a hybrid retirement system. Historically, teachers have been opposed to changes to the pension system.