A Legislative Perspective on the Kentucky General Assembly with State Representative Tina Bojanowski
FRANKFORT – Later this fall, Kentucky will commemorate the 130th anniversary of our state constitution.
It may seem odd to point that out in early March, during the final days of the 2021 legislative session, but given some of the extreme bills the General Assembly is considering, now may be the best time to pay tribute to the wisdom our constitution’s framers had back in 1891. Their foresight, for example, is the reason why repeated attempts have failed to undermine Governor Beshear’s work to keep COVID-19 at bay.
We will almost certainly count on those same framers to strike down some of this year’s more egregious legislative power grabs.
And there is hope that a single sentence they wrote – calling on the General Assembly to “provide for an efficient system of common schools throughout the state” – will be the backstop that, if necessary, would block woefully misguided legislation the House narrowly approved on Thursday.
The Kentucky Education Association perhaps summed up House Bill 563 best, calling it “bad education policy, bad fiscal policy, and bad public policy.”
For more than four years now, the majority party has looked for ways to have public tax dollars pay for private education. Efforts to establish charter schools have stalled without a direct line of funding, so the focus now is creating generous tax credits – almost dollar for dollar – that wealthy donors could receive if they pay into a fund supporting what are now euphemistically called “education opportunity accounts.”
The original goal was to have these accounts cover private-school tuition costs, and the bill was written in a way that these credits could grow almost unchecked, eventually siphoning away billions of tax dollars.
When it became clear this approach lacked enough support, the bill’s sponsors decided this year to start small, using these funds to help public school students with educational costs like tutoring while allowing them to transfer with ease to another public school district. The legislation also put a hard cap on these tax credits at $25 million a year.
What ultimately passed the House on Thursday, though, went much further than expected. As it now stands, the public-school transfer option and $25 million cost are still included, but students in Jefferson, Fayette and Kenton counties, and only them, would inexplicably be able to use this money as well for private-school tuition.
Attempts to audit how this money is spent and whether it actually helps was rejected, as was another amendment to bar private education services from discriminatory practices. A proposal to have the state fund all-day kindergarten, however, was included with broad support.
As much as that is needed – the state only funds half-day kindergarten, with most school districts covering the other half themselves – there is growing evidence that this was politics at its worst, since legislative leaders appear unlikely to include this $140 million proposal in the one-year budget that will be voted on early next week and it is not listed in the budget that was released on Saturday.
In the end, this bill is now part Frankenstein because of the way it was cobbled together and part zombie because some of its bad ideas refuse to die. The secretive and convoluted way it was passed was scary, too.
Although I opposed this bill, I still proudly support the commonwealth’s network of private schools, which for generations now have filled an important need for our communities. Parents should always have the opportunity to send their children there, just not at state expense.
That’s especially true now, given the fact that public education has been underfunded since the start of the Great Recession more than a dozen years ago. In 2009, our public schools and universities received 58 cents of every state tax dollar; now, that’s down to 52 cents, even with the significant increases made in contributions to our teachers’ retirement system.
House Bill 563 comes on the heels of another bill, now on the governor’s desk, that will make it easier to recall school tax hikes approved by locally elected school boards and used to make critical upgrades in facilities and services. The Senate, meanwhile, is moving ahead with a plan to take away non-voting seats on the Kentucky Board of Education held by a public-school student and teacher. The symbolism of this potential removal speaks volumes.
Another bill reeking of symbolism is one that gives House and Senate leaders, instead of the courts, final say if there is a dispute about whether legislative information is covered under the state’s Open Records law. That law already provides exceptions for private or sensitive information, so this latest maneuver does nothing but undermine public confidence.
With two meeting days this coming week, and the two final ones at the end of the month following a veto recess, the General Assembly still has a long to-do list to work through. Enacting a one-year state budget is the biggest task left on the agenda, but the good news here is that state revenues are much higher than expected and two federal stimulus packages from December and this past week will inject billions of dollars more into our economy. I will focus on what that means for the state next week.
For now, I want to thank the many people who have reached out to me during this legislative session, and I encourage you to keep the dialogue going even after our time passing laws is done.
No matter the time of year, you can always email me at Tina.Bojanowski@lrc.ky.gov, and the toll-free message line – staffed each weekday by operators – is 1-800-372-7181. I’m on social media as well. My Twitter handle is @tinaforkentucky and my Facebook page is State Representative Tina Bojanowski. You can also read bills and see our votes on the General Assembly’s webpage at legislature.ky.gov.