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Wednesday, March 17, 2021

Bill on school choice passes both Senate and House, Governor's Veto Awaits

Sen. Chris McDaniel, R-Taylor Mill (left), reviews legislation with Senate President Pro Tem David P. Givens, R-Greensburg, in the Senate. Sen. Wil Schroder in the background. 

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The most contentious and debated bill for the 2021 Kentucky General Assembly passed both the Senate and House yesterday, hours before the midnight deadline legislators needed to make the bill veto-proof from Governor Andy Beshear's pen. 

House Bill 563, known as the "School Choice" bill passed through committees on its way to the Senate, where it passed 21-15 before reaching the House, where it passed by one vote, 48-47. (See below for bill's path).

The bill would go into effect in 2022.

It's expected that Beshear will veto the bill. Fifty-one votes by the House is required to override the veto. Today, Beshear said that he will "review the bill closely."

In a nutshell, the bill would create a form of scholarship tax credits and allow state funding to follow students to public schools outside of their district. The legislation requires each district in Kentucky to adopt a policy about accepting students who don’t live in the district so that kids could get benefits not offered in their own school district. If a district does not have the capacity to take on additional students, they would not have to. So that the bill won’t be used as an athletic recruiting tool, students who transfer to another district can’t play sports for a year.

Initially, the bill only allowed the families to apply for grants to public schools, but a floor amendment in the House changed the bill so that education opportunity accounts pay private school tuition only in the larger Fayette, Jefferson and Kenton counties but not the rest of the state. 

The Senate budget committee expanded those counties Tuesday to any counties with a population over 90,000, which includes Boone, Campbell, Hardin, Daviess and Warren. The amendment was filed by Senator Wil Schroder (R-Wilder). He said on the floor that he was supportive of the bill and blasted what he characterized as "false criticisms" that he was seeing online and in his inbox.

"This bill has been changed multiple times to try to please a group of people that we all know will never support this concept," he said. 

"Let’s talk about the logic of the opponents. They try to claim that they can’t support this because as they claim it takes $25 million away from public schools. That’s a false narrative. It’s beyond an assumption, it’s a wish. They wish that they had $25 million more in the Education budget but the truth is that the money is coming out of the General Fund and it could be distributed to a number of places in the budget: corrections, pensions, working on our unemployment insurance deficit. 

Again, the idea that we are taking money that is somehow earmarked for education is completely false."

Opponents disagreed, arguing that the bill will pull millions in funding from the state budget, potentially meaning cuts to education and other services that help disadvantaged students and their families.

Under the legislation, people and corporations who donate to groups that moderate the accounts will get a tax credit on their donations. Kentucky would provide up to $25 million a year until 2026 for the tax credits.

Families who land under 175% of the income threshold for reduced-price lunch — roughly $84,800 for a family of four — would be able to apply for an EOA. Funds would be doled out based on need, with families making less being prioritized and receiving more money.

Kentucky Education Commissioner Jason Glass said he was concerned with the bill on multiple fronts.

“It is being rushed through the legislative process with little effort at gaining input or correction of obvious flaws and predictable negative consequences which the current language contains,” Glass said after the full House vote. “This legislation is of potentially enormous consequence - which begs a more thorough approach to considering both the public school choice and tax credit aspects.”

Many educational groups, including Kentucky Education Association, openly campaigned for this bill to be defeated. 

“This bill is dangerous. This bill is bad education policy. It’s bad fiscal policy. And its bad public policy. It does nothing to protect our students and their families or to assure that they receive a high quality education,” said Kentucky Education Association President Eddie Campbell. "So-called 'education opportunity accounts' are just another term for private-school vouchers."

Despite the pushback from public school advocates, this bill signals a major win for groups like EdChoice. 

"It's a really big day," said Andrew Vandiver with EdChoice Kentucky. "It's just about fairness. Trying to make sure that low to middle-income families have the same choice and opportunities that upper-income families have."

The legislature will recess while the governor has 10 days to sign bills delivered to him, let it become law without his signature or veto it.

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Here's how the NKY Legislative Caucus voted on HB 563:
Senate (Final Passage 21-15):
Chris McDaniel, R - Yes
John Schickel, R - Yes
Wil Schroder, R - Yes
Adrienne Southworth, R - Yes
Damon Thayer, R - Yes

House (Final Passage 48-47):
Kim Banta, R - Yes
Joe Fischer, R - Yes
Mark Hart, R - No
Adam Koenig, R - Yes
Savannah Maddox, R - Yes
Ed Massey, R - No
Kim Moser, R - Yes
Phillip Pratt, R - Yes
Felicia Rabourn, R - Yes
Rachel Roberts, D - No
Sal Santoro, R - Yes
Buddy Wheatley, D - No

Note: Rep. Joe Fischer did not respond for multiple inquiries for this story. 

See the bill's history on how it maneuvered to the Governor's desk (click to enlarge):

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