Kentucky ballot measure should resolve school-choice debate, Senate leader says

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By BRUCE SCHREINER Associated Press

Kentucky’s long-running political battle over whether taxpayer money should fund private or charter schools could be settled “once and for all” when voters decide the fate of a ballot measure in November, the state Senate’s top Republican leader said Tuesday.

One of the most contentious debates of the legislative session that ended Monday will carry over into the fall. That’s when Kentuckians will vote on the proposed school choice constitutional amendment that the GOP-dominated legislature placed on the general election ballot.

If it is ratified by the electorate, it would clear the way for lawmakers to decide whether to support private or charter school education with taxpayer dollars after years of political and legal battles.

Asked if school choice efforts would be dropped or still pursued if the ballot measure fails, Republican Senate President Robert Stivers replied: “I think it would answer the question once and for all.”

“And I know that several people voted for the school choice amendment to settle that question — what do the people of Kentucky want?” he added at a news conference Tuesday.

Democratic Gov. Andy Beshear has vowed to “work every day” to defeat the ballot proposal, saying “public dollars should only go to public schools, period.” Beshear will align with the Kentucky Education Association, which represents tens of thousands of public school educators, in opposing the measure.

Republican Senate Majority Floor Leader Damon Thayer said Tuesday that he plans to be a vocal proponent of the ballot measure. He predicted that opponents will be well funded but said supporters will have the means to make their case to voters.

“We think that there are going to be groups coming into Kentucky, and groups from Kentucky who are going to be investing heavily in media and the grassroots to pass” the ballot measure, Thayer said.

The push for the constitutional amendment follows court rulings that said tax dollars must be spent on the state’s “common” schools — a reference to public schools — and cannot be diverted to charter or private institutions.

Potential campaign themes were on display during legislative debates and again Tuesday.

Rural Kentucky communities — where public schools are big employers — would be hardest hit if the ballot measure gains voter approval, Democratic state Rep. Cherlynn Stevenson said Tuesday.

“We need to respond loud and clear in November that public taxpayer dollars do not belong in private schools,” she said at a news conference.

During the Senate debate last month, Thayer said some of the biggest beneficiaries of the school choice push would be low- and middle-income parents whose children are “trapped in bad schools.”

Past efforts by Republican lawmakers to expand school choice options were foiled by legal challenges, prompting the push to amend the state constitution.

In 2022, Kentucky’s Supreme Court struck down a measure passed by GOP lawmakers to award tax credits for donations supporting private school tuition. And last year a circuit court judge rejected another measure to set up a funding method for charter schools.

Stivers said Tuesday that the two systems of educating children can coexist.

“I believe that the two – being charter schools and public education – can live together and actually thrive together,” the Senate president said.

Under the two-year spending plan passed by lawmakers, per-pupil funding under SEEK — the state’s main funding formula for public K-12 schools — will increase by more than 9% over two years.

The spending plan will steer more state funding to less-wealthy school districts to balance out funding disparities with wealthier districts. And it boosts state funding for school districts’ transportation costs.

Stevenson faulted GOP lawmakers for not funding an across-the-board pay raise for teachers and other school staff and not including Beshear’s proposal to provide preschool for every 4-year-old in Kentucky.

The governor proposed an 11% pay raise for teachers and all other public school employees. The GOP-passed budget left decisions on pay raises to local school boards, but lawmakers said they hoped the influx of additional state funding would enable districts to award raises.





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