A high school classroom. (Getty Images)
FRANKFORT — A House committee voted 8-5 Tuesday to forward a bill that would let Kentucky voters decide in 2024 on a constitutional amendment to allow the legislature to provide funding for non-public schools.
Rep. Josh Calloway, R-Irvington, the sponsor of House Bill 174, told the House Committee on Elections, Constitutional Amendments and Intergovernmental Affairs the amendment would let the legislature establish a school choice program.
Currently, the state constitution adopted in 1891 says the General Assembly is limited to fund “common schools,” or public schools. The Kentucky Supreme Court ruled the Education Opportunity Account Act, a school choice bill the General Assembly previously passed, as unconstitutional in December.
After the meeting, the representative said he’s “committed to the cause” and wants to do everything he can to see it through. As of Tuesday morning, the bill had no floor readings in the House despite having more than 30 co-sponsors, but Calloway pointed to the quick movement of House Bill 470 and Senate Bill 150.
“Everything is fluid right now,” he said. “And I think we’ll just see over the next few days, we’ll kind of see this thing shape out and so everything is really fluid.”
Calloway said Kentucky elected “the most pro-school choice General Assembly” last year. A January poll from Mason-Dixon Polling & Strategy firm found 54% of Kentuckians support school choice.
Akia McNeary, a school choice advocate who has children in both public and private schools, joined Calloway in the committee meeting. She said Kentucky students deserve “the education that best fits their needs.”
Among questions Calloway received, Rep. Josie Raymond, D-Louisville, asked if the language that would appear on the ballot would be clear to voters. She also read it aloud during the meeting.
Calloway said yes, and Andrew Vandiver, the president of EdChoice Kentucky and associate director of the Catholic Conference of Kentucky, also joined Calloway and added that it was important the language be specific because of the Kentucky Supreme Court decision that struck down Marsy’s Law in 2019. Both said messages about what the amendment would do would be communicated to voters within the next year.
“I don’t know that the average voter knows that common schools means public schools,” Raymond said.
Raymond also asked if Calloway thought tax dollars should support religious schools, but he said the amendment would not do that.
“What this amendment does is it allows the legislature to have the opportunity to put some type of school choice program in place,” Calloway said. “This is not allowing for charter schools per se and a program. This is not allowing for Christian schools, private schools, religious schools as a program. That is a discussion that we will have at a later date.”
A couple members of the public voiced opposition for the bill. Additionally, the Kentucky Education Association Executive Director Mary Ruble and President Eddie Campbell spoke against the proposed amendment.
Ruble said the amendment would nullify four sections of the Kentucky constitution that relate to the legislature’s “obligations to the public schools.”
“If the proponents of school choice are so confident that that’s what the people of Kentucky want, there is currently a constitutional fix for this without making changes to the Constitution, and it is to simply to put the question to a referendum of the people,” she said. “This is unnecessary. It is wide-ranging. It is extreme.”
Committee Chairman and a bill co-sponsor Rep. Kevin Bratcher, R-Louisville, said after voting yes on the bill the issue of school choice has been around for many years and surrounding states have charter schools. The people should decide, he added.
“Where did we corner the market on such intelligence?” he said. “I mean, is our schools that great— public schools— that you’d want to make a stand that you can’t make one change towards privatization? Is that where we’re at?”
Two Republicans, Rep. Jennifer Decker and Rep. Matt Koch, voted yes on the bill after joining the committee following testimony. Other legislative committees were underway at the same time.
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