Republican-led House panel in Kentucky advances proposed school choice constitutional amendment

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FRANKFORT, Ky. (AP) — Republican lawmakers started advancing a school choice constitutional amendment Tuesday that could become the most hotly debated state issue this fall if the proposal reaches Kentucky’s ballot.

The measure cleared a GOP-led House panel hours after the committee meeting was announced to take up one of the most closely watched issues of this year’s legislative session. The proposal goes to the full House next and would still need Senate approval to reach the statewide ballot in November. Republicans have supermajorities in both chambers.

Several proposed constitutional amendments are under review by lawmakers, but the school choice measure is seen as a top priority for many Republicans, based on its designation as House Bill 2.

The committee hearing offered a preview of the looming political fight should the school choice measure reach the ballot for voters to decide. While a prominent Republican supporter promoted school choice, the president of the Kentucky Education Association denounced the proposal as a threat to public education. The KEA is a labor association representing tens of thousands of public school educators.

If ratified by voters, the proposal would give the legislature the option to “provide financial support for the education of students outside the system of common schools’’ — a reference to public schools.

For instance, it would remove constitutional barriers that have blocked the state from assisting parents who want to enroll their children in private or charter schools.

Courts in Kentucky have ruled that public tax dollars must be spent on the state’s “common” schools and cannot be diverted to charter or private schools. School choice advocates are hoping to surmount those legal hurdles by getting the school choice bill ratified on the fall ballot.

During the hearing, Democrats opposed to the bill tried to pin down Republican state Rep. Suzanne Miles, the bill’s lead sponsor, on what follow-up policy decisions by the legislature could occur if the ballot measure wins voter approval. Miles responded that “there’s a long path” ahead before lawmakers would reach the point of discussing policy options. Instead, she made a broad pitch for the ballot proposal.

“I would like for every child in the commonwealth to have the best options possible for them to succeed,” said Miles, who is a member of the House Republican leadership team.

KEA President Eddie Campbell called the proposal bad public policy and “dangerous” to public education.

“It will be detrimental to Kentucky’s public schools, opening the door for public tax dollars to stream to unaccountable private institutions with no oversight,” he told the committee.

Kentucky parents already have choices in where they send their children to school, Campbell said. But the bill’s opponents worry that it would lead to public funds being diverted away from public schools.

The KEA has signaled it’s ready to fight back against any school choice proposal. The KEA has a powerful ally in Democratic Gov. Andy Beshear, who has promised to join the fight. Beshear won a convincing reelection victory last November in Republican-leaning Kentucky.

The group says lawmakers should focus on bolstering public education by raising teacher salaries, fully funding student transportation and ensuring access to preschool for every 4-year-old in Kentucky.

The push for a constitutional amendment gained steam after the courts struck down school choice laws.

In 2022, Kentucky’s Supreme Court struck down a measure passed by GOP lawmakers to award tax credits for donations supporting private school tuition.

Last year, a circuit court judge rejected another measure that set up a funding method for charter schools. The decision stymied efforts to give such schools a foothold in the Bluegrass State. Those schools would be operated by independent groups with fewer regulations than most public schools.

With no election for statewide office on the Kentucky ballot this November, a school choice ballot measure would turn into an expensive, hard-fought campaign drawing considerable attention.