HB 563 Could Lead To Changes in Kentucky’s Education System

Governor Andy Beshear vetoed HB 563 shortly after the bill regarding school choice passed through the State Legislature.

In Kentucky, education is regarded to be one of the most hotly debated topics in terms of legislature. KY House Bill 563 is no exception.

HB 563, first introduced by Kentucky State Representatives Chad McCoy and Sal Santoro, is one relating to school choice. The bill would use a tax-credit scholarship fund to allow families to choose schools other than their districted public schools. It states that Education Opportunity Accounts (EOA), which is an account that provides funds to the parent of a receiving student, has been allocated under an Account-Granting Organization (AGO), which is a nonprofit organization. The organization receives contributions, allocates funds, and administers EOAs to students, which will help students and their families pay for expenses to educate the EOA student.

Students who are eligible for the EOA must be a part of a family with an annual household income of no more than 175% of the annual household income necessary for eligibility, when applying. 

The funds given from an AGO to an EOA student would be used for non-public schools and/or schools that require tuition. These funds can be used for uniforms, tuition, tutoring, or instructional material. 

The bill also states that an EOA account will be renewed every year, as long as the family using the account does not exceed 250% of the annual household income necessary for eligibility. The bill would also have no state oversight when it comes to the distribution of funds and the student may use the funds from an EOA account to switch from a public school to a private school.

The bill has drawn attention from both sides and was passed through the House in a narrow vote of 48-47, with 5 representatives choosing not to vote, and in the Senate with an equally narrow vote of 21-15, with 2 senators choosing not to vote. Only one Democrat, Rep. AL Gentry, joined the majority and one third of House Republicans opposed the bill. Two legislators with an education background voted for the bill, ten against, and one choose not to vote. Representative Killian Tomoney, an FCPS Educator, voted against the bill.

Stakeholders on both sides of the issue foresee the bill working in different ways in three main areas of focus. 

Diverse and Inclusive Schools

To some, HB 563 is a way to create more diverse and inclusive schools while others see it as a new form of school segregation.

“School choice efforts bring the benefits of parent empowerment and greater and more diverse school options, [but we also] see increased school segregation as a result of these practices being put into place,” Kentucky Commissioner of Education Dr. Jason Glass explained during a recent Student Advisory Council meeting.

Legislatures voting to pass the bill see this as an opportunity working to break financial barriers.

“HB 563 seeks to eliminate financial barriers to education access to help eligible families attain the education they choose for their children. This bill is specifically designed to help children in lower socioeconomic status and middle-income status,” State Representative Ralph Alvarado (R) said.

While it may be breaking some financial barriers, some see this bill disproportionately affecting lower-income families in the finer details. 

“One problem with the bill is that families at high incomes – twice the median income in Kentucky – qualify,” State Representative, Josie Raymond (D), said. “Further, many families with the most financial need are not able to access services like private schools that do not offer transportation.” 

For some parents, however, they are not concerned about the financial qualifier and instead are more focused on the opportunity for a different education for their children. 

“Not everyone learns the same way and not everyone fits in the same environment, so if there is a place or a chance for a student to find a school or location that fits better with their style, then I think that would be beneficial to everyone involved, especially the student” FCPS Parent Tom Roentz said.

Education Funding and Budget

The Kentucky Education Budget is an issue that continues to be debated between all stakeholders. The Kentucky Education Association (KEA) stated that public schools have been continuously underfunded in every state budget since 2008. With that in mind, many feel that this bill will greatly affect the budget once again.

“This bill will devastate public schools,” PLD Social Studies Teacher, Sharessa Crovo, said.

“We have crumbling buildings and infrastructure, we have packed classrooms of over 35 students, my textbooks are over 15 yrs old and we are trying to go 1 to 1 with technology. I just don’t know what they could possibly be thinking,” Mrs. Crovo said.

The Fayette County Board of Education Chair, Tyler Murphy, has similar concerns.

“The Kentucky Supreme Court has affirmed that the constitutional obligation of providing for an efficient public education system is that of the General Assembly. HB 563 undermines this fundamental premise,” Board Chair Mr. Tyler Murphy said.

On the contrary, proponents of the bill explain the source of the money and look to other states, where school choice has been in effect, to prove the benefits of it. 

“In Florida, school choice opportunities led to significant statistical improvements in both math and reading scores, despite saving more than $1,700 per pupil. The tax credits associated with donations are capped at $25 million a year and come out of the state’s general fund,” Alvarado said. 

“In addition to the $3.5 billion the General Assembly has appropriated into the education budget, the Federal Government is sending the Kentucky Department of Education an additional $2.1 billion as part of the American Rescue Plan. I think it is safe to say that this bill will not affect Kentucky’s education budget,” he said.

While some states like Florida have seen beneficial changes, Board Chair Murphy pointed out that other states, like Arizona, have seen alarming degrees of “graft and corruption at the expense of children and families.”

School Accountability

One of the biggest concerns of the opponents of the bill, is that there is no state oversight. 

“[No state oversight] is a glaring problem with the bill, regardless of one’s position on the goals behind the legislation. HB 563 does not provide for how education service providers like tutors will be vetted to ensure that they are qualified, safe, and even any good,” Raymond said. 

Similar to the concerns of Raymond, Crovo is worried about the misuse of money that is given to these programs. 

“Public taxpayer funds require oversight in every other capacity, why would we not want oversight? We have seen charter school after charter school have problems with money being embezzled or misappropriated and now we want no oversight for vouchers?” said Crovo. “That seems very short sighted.” 

The bill does, however, state requirements that the programs must meet. Although there is no direct state oversight, those pushing for the bill are hopeful that the requirements will be enough.

“Every AGO will have to apply for certification from the Department of Education and provide a description of the methodology it will use to approve education service providers,” said Alvarado. 

During the session to discuss the bill, many of these concerns were brought to the table. They not only pertained to the concern of state oversight, but also to discrimination and background checks. 

“I filed an amendment to ensure that all education service providers be at least background checked. The Republican majority voted against it,” Raymond said. “I also had a bill to ensure that education service providers be prohibited from discriminating against students because of race, LGBT status, and other factors — it was also voted down by the Republican majority.”

Because the amendment, made by Raymond against discrimination, did not go through, it is possible that (if the bill were to be passed) discrimination could pose as an issue to AGOs. However, Alvarado is sure that this will not be the case. 

“The bill promotes flexibility and choices in education to Kentucky residents and addresses disparities in educational options available to students,” said Alvarado. “It is my hope that these will be available to every Kentucky student in every county in the future. 

After Governor Beshear vetoed the bill on Wednesday, March 24th, the House is set to reconvene on Monday, March 29th to vote on potentially overriding the veto. Beshear called the bill a “direct attack” on public education, preserving his stance on public education. 

With the bill barely passing through the House the first time around, many wonder if they will be able to come up with the 51 votes needed to override the Governor’s veto. Some are hopeful, while others will continue to push against the passage of the bill. 

“Unfortunately, this bill was rushed through with no significant input from stakeholders, without sufficient or transparent debate and discourse, and without a full examination of its consequences–notwithstanding the real and serious flaws with the proposal itself, this flawed process is sufficient reason enough to oppose its adoption,” Murphy said. 

Kentucky has never had the option for school choice, making this bill, if it were to be enacted, an essential part of Kentucky history. 

“House Bill 563 provides a historic opportunity to shift the state’s education system’s focus to meet the needs of Kentucky’s children better,” said Alvarado. 

 The House will soon reopen the discussion of the controversial bill and Kentuckians will shortly find out how their education system will be altered.