Kentucky Bill Would Allow Public Money for Non-Public Schools

GOP caucus chair says ‘it’s time for us to let the voters decide’

Republican Caucus Chair Rep. Suzanne Miles, left, answers reporter questions with House Speaker David Osborne. (McKenna Horsley/Kentucky Lantern)

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FRANKFORT — Priority GOP legislation that would allow public funding to non-public schools was filed in the Kentucky House Friday.

The primary sponsor of House Bill 2 is Majority Caucus Chair Suzanne Miles, R-Owensboro. The legislation seeks to amend the state Constitution to give the General Assembly the ability to give dollars to “the education of students outside the system of common schools,” or non-public schools. If approved by lawmakers, Kentucky voters would decide on the amendment in November.

Appearing with House Speaker David Osborne after filing the bill, Miles said it would be up to voters to “modernize our education system.”

“This has been a conversation for really multiple decades now, so I think it’s time for us to let the voters decide,” she said.

Osborne said the number assigned to Miles’ bill is a “pretty good indication” that it will continue to move in the House. He declined to speculate on how such an amendment would fare at the ballot box, though he predicted it would be an expensive campaign. 

A similar bill, House Bill 208, had been previously filed by Rep. Josh Calloway, R-Irvington. Miles said her bill was a “cleaner version.” Calloway’s bill would require the state to fund non-public schools, unlike Miles’ version, which offers the option as the General Assembly sees fit.

Calloway’s legislation has not received a committee assignment, but it has gained 31 Republican co-sponsors.

The phrase “common schools” has often been a legal hurdle for previous laws passed by the General Assembly to allow charter schools in Kentucky. Such schools are funded by taxes and allow all children within its district to attend if they meet age requirements.

When striking down a charter school law in December, Franklin Circuit Court Judge Phillip Shepherd wrote that charter schools are “private entities” that do not meet the Kentucky Constitution’s definition of  “public schools” or “common schools.”

In December 2022, the Kentucky Supreme Court unanimously struck down a Kentucky law creating a generous tax credit to help families pay for tuition at private schools. The opinion, which upheld a circuit court ruling by Shepherd, cited a long line of precedent reinforcing the Kentucky Constitution’s ban on the state financially supporting private schools.

As for whether lawmakers would look to renew some of those laws struck down in court, Osborne said there were “discussions to be had” if the amendment passes because that involves policy.

“This is not a policy question,” the speaker said. “This is simply a clarification of our constitutional authorities.”

Osborne said the Senate has reviewed the language and was comfortable with it.

Earlier this week, Republican Senate President Robert Stivers said in an interview with multiple media outlets that lawmakers were having a lot of discussions around putting forth an amendment. The push for an amendment is “probably more of a reflection of doing something with the Jefferson County Public School system,” he added.

Stivers cited reporting from the Courier Journal about the magnet schools program in JCPS and issues with some children not getting services as required under special education law, as well as the more recent busing fiasco that prevented JCPS from opening for a few days in August.

Opening charter schools would depend on how the local community feels about its school system, Stivers argued. For example, a town with a school district like Corbin Independent Schools that ranks highly on its assessments may not see a charter school open nearby.

“I don’t think you’ll see the impact of a charter school in rural areas, but there will always be that concern,” Stivers said. As for arguments that funding charter schools in urban areas could mean less money for rural public schools, Stivers called them “bogus” and a “red herring” because of the Support Education Excellence in Kentucky (SEEK) program, which is the foundation for legislative education funding.

Kentucky Lantern is part of States Newsroom, a network of news bureaus supported by grants and a coalition of donors as a 501c(3) public charity. Kentucky Lantern maintains editorial independence. Contact Editor Jamie Lucke for questions: info@kentuckylantern.com. Follow Kentucky Lantern on Facebook and Twitter.

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