Officials with local private schools are excited about the potential of Kentucky’s new “school choice” bill. The legislation will create a tax credit system that allows designated organizations to distribute donated funds to eligible families to use on education expenses — including private school tuition in the state’s largest counties.
“We’re very excited about it and we’ve been working hard to help get it passed for several years, trying to get our parents involved,” said Owensboro Catholic Schools Chief Administrative Officer Keith Osbourne. “Because we’re all about choice, whether you choose us or whether you choose a public school doesn’t matter. We feel like the parent is the best person to choose what the right educational place is for their child.”
Gov. Andy Beshear vetoed the bill — calling it “unconstitutional” on a number of fronts — though the Kentucky General Assembly overrode that veto in the final days of session.
“We’re excited that it passed and we’re looking forward to utilizing it to help draw additional children to our schools, especially middle- and low-income families which this is geared toward,” Osborne said. “We think it’s going to be a great thing.”
Chris Holmes, Head of School at Grace Christian Academy, said he was very thankful that the bill has finally passed.
“We have neighboring states that have similar sorts of arrangements in place, and those types of things have worked well for them,” he said. “I’m hopeful that once all of the administrative system is put in place for this one, we’ll have a workable system and that over time we can continue to improve it and make it better and make it more widely applicable for people throughout the state to be able to take full advantage of it.”
In a legislative update this week, Senator Matt Castlen wrote that HB 563 “provides an historic opportunity to shift the state’s education system’s focus to better meet the needs of Kentucky’s children. It promotes flexibility and choices and addresses disparities in education options currently available to students.”
There are two major components to HB 563 — allowing students to freely cross district borders to attend the public school of their choosing, and the creation of Educational Opportunity Accounts (EOAs) which would help eligible families pay for a variety of education-related expenses.
For families in counties with more than 90,000 residents — such as Daviess — up to $25 million from private donations can be donated to EOAs and qualify as a tax credit. EOA funds would only be eligible to families who are most in need. Eligibility for a family to tap into the money to help pay for school expenses would be capped at 175% of the reduced-price lunch threshold.
Students could utilize EOA funds for a range of school expenses, including textbooks, online learning programs, summer or after school learning programs, transportation to school, career and technical education sources, and tutoring services.
“Despite misinformation from those opposed to the bill, no money is diverted from public schools,” Castlen’s update reads. “If anything, this bill can provide an additional $25 million for our student’s education. After all, the billions we put into public education every single budget (over 41% of the entire state budget goes to K-12 education alone) and the additional $2 billion-plus coming from the federal government in the recent stimulus is all to educate our students.”
Castlen also noted that the EOA provision will sunset after five years, requiring legislative action to be maintained.
“That will be a timeframe in which we can analyze the benefits of EOAs in Kentucky,” he said. “They have proven effective in other states, such as Florida, where student success has improved — particularly for less privileged children — and overall costs have decreased.”
There is still much to be figured out in terms of how the EOAs will be implemented and regulated, but supporters of the bill agree that it provides students of lesser means with those same opportunities as high-income families.
“I think this bill benefits students more than anything,” said Anna McDaniel, Director of Advancement and Admissions at St. Mary of the Woods School/Trinity High School. “It gives students and their families a freedom to go to the school of their choice. Businesses who donate to this scholarship fund are the ones creating this opportunity for students. Because of their donations, they are changing lives. It seems like a win for the businesses who donate and for the students who qualify.”