| Louisville Courier Journal
Kentucky House leadership has quietly tacked controversial school choice legislation onto a new bill before steering it to a committee vote.
House Bill 563, filed by House Majority Whip Rep. Chad McCoy, R-Bardstown, initially called for all Kentucky school districts to create open enrollment policies to allow students from neighboring districts to attend classes and let funding follow.
But a proposed committee substitute of the bill, obtained by The Courier Journal, significantly alters the legislation to include “education opportunity accounts.”
The revised bill is slated to be discussed in the House Appropriations & Revenue Committee at 11 a.m. Thursday. The legislation already has two of its three required readings on the House floor, setting it up for a full House vote later the same day.
Education opportunity accounts are a reprise of tax credit scholarship legislation that floundered repeatedly in previous sessions. It also drew a sharp rebuke from educators and, in one session, opposition from every superintendent in the state.
Like scholarship tax credits, EOAs offer a tax credit to people who donate to third-party organizations that then give money to qualifying families for education expenses.
Previously, the funds could be used only for private school tuition. With opportunity accounts, public school students can receive money to use on nearly any type of expense other than athletics.
In a key change from the existing opportunity account bill, House Bill 149, the revised HB 563 does not allow opportunity accounts to be used at private schools.
The funds would only be available to public school students.
HB 149 has more than two dozen co-sponsors but has not been given a committee hearing.
School choice measures are often among the most closely watched pieces of legislation, previously sparking district-closing “sickout” protests. The Capitol remains closed to the public, preventing teachers from watching in-person or protesting legislation inside the Capitol.
The pandemic has renewed a desire for parental choice in education, and by association, school choice legislation.
Open enrollment policies would allow for increased school choice for families while keeping tax dollars inside the traditional public school system. A potential loss of funding for underfunded public schools is a common concern in school choice discussions.
Senate Bill 170, which is the open enrollment companion bill, appeared to get a positive reception in a recent information-only hearing in front of the Senate Education Committee.
Compared with tax credit scholarships, open enrollment is more well-regarded in education circles. Some supporters, though, fear adding opportunity account language will risk the original policy’s success.
HB 563’s new language would let districts count nonresident students toward their average daily attendance, which dictates state funding. State law currently prohibits funding from following students who attend school in a district where they don’t live, unless written into an open enrollment agreement between two districts.
Fights for students and the money tied to them frequently land before Kentucky’s education commissioner, who has the authority to resolve disputes.
Under the revised bill, districts would need to ink enrollment policies allowing nonresidents students to attend any school in the district by July 1, 2022. Districts wouldn’t be allowed to discriminate between nonresident students, the bill reads, but “may recognize enrollment capacity.”
Any student who transfers to a new district would be ineligible to play sports for a year, the bill adds.
On the education opportunity account front, the new bill drops the income threshold to receive money from 200% of the reduced-price lunch threshold — which critics of the bill considered too high — to 175%.
That’s roughly $84,800 for a family of four.
The bill also calls for the Legislative Research Commission to create a School Funding Task Force, which would be tasked with reviewing Kentucky’s entire school funding mechanism and recommending changes by the end of the year.
Task force members would include six lawmakers, Kentucky’s education commissioner, three superintendents and three school board members.
This story may be updated.
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