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April 13, 2018

CHARTER SCHOOLS ARE BACK IN PLAY

TAX CREDITS FOR DONATIONS TO PRIVATE BOARDS AND SCHOLARSHIPS

Gov. Matt Bevin’s decision to veto budget and tax reform legislation means two controversial school-choice measures that previously appeared dead for the session could be back in play.

The measures — one for charter school funding and the other for a scholarship tax credit program — have generated mostly Republican support. But when the GOP-controlled legislature unveiled its budget bill and tax overhaul last week, neither had made it in.

The legislature has until midnight Saturday to override Bevin’s vetoes. An override would require 51 votes in the Senate and 20 votes in the House.

If lawmakers choose not to override the tax and budget bill vetoes — or can’t drum up the required votes — the legislature could head back to the drawing board. That would give the charter and tax credit bills a new shot to succeed this session, policy observers say.
Here’s what we know about where the school-choice measures stand:

Charter schools

Charter schools are public schools that receive taxpayer dollars to operate, just like traditional public schools. But unlike traditional public schools, which are managed by school districts, charter schools are managed by independent organizations.

Following a bitter debate among lawmakers last year, Kentucky became the 44th state to authorize charter schools.

But because it wasn’t a budget year, funding approved for charters was temporary and will expire on June 30 — long before any charter schools are set to open.

That left lawmakers this session with the task of agreeing upon a permanent funding mechanism.

When the Senate’s version of tax reform was released last week, charter funding was included. But when the bill emerged from a conference committee, the funding was gone.

The news broke while thousands of Kentucky teachers were gathered at the state Capitol, satisfying many there who held anti-charter school signs but flummoxing charter supporters.

“Technically, we’re a charter state with no charter schools,” said Gary Houchens, an associate professor at Western Kentucky University and school-choice advocate.

He is also a member of the Kentucky Board of Education but said he was giving his personal opinion.

Houchens said that lawmakers have been under “enormous pressure” this session because of other education-related issues, including pension reform.

But if Bevin’s vetoes mean lawmakers will re-work the state budget and revenue bills, Houchens said he hopes “they would include considerations for schoolchoice provisions in those discussions.”
Kentucky’s situation is “unprecedented,” said Todd Ziebarth, senior vice president of the National Alliance for Public Charter Schools.
“We’ve never seen a state enact a law one year and come back the next year and stall funding,” Ziebarth said.

Both the statewide and Jefferson County teachers unions have opposed charter schools. And during recent rallies in Frankfort, crowds of teachers have chanted against charters. Several educators said they believed the state had scarce resources and shouldn’t divert funds from district schools.

Rep. Attica Scott, a Louisville Democrat who filed a bill in the session to repeal last year’s charter school law, said lawmakers should “fully fund” traditional public schools before deciding to fund charter schools.

“I think the saddest thing about the charter school stuff is that this is yet another piece of the dismantling of public education that is being sold to be as a way to improve schools,” said Joshua Kumm, a consulting special education teacher with Jefferson County Public Schools.

Scholarship tax credits

A scholarship tax credit program would provide dollar-for-dollar tax credits to individuals and businesses donating money toward private school scholarships.

Critics argue that the program would siphon badly needed revenue from the state’s general fund. But supporters say it would help kids with special needs, in foster care or from low-income households move to the front of the line to get scholarship help.

Andrew Vandiver, associate director for the Catholic Conference of Kentucky, lobbied for the tax credits and said he had received commitments from lawmakers that a provision to create a scholarship tax credit program would be included in a comprehensive tax reform bill.

But when Republican lawmakers zipped the tax bill through last week, the program wasn’t included.

Now that Bevin has vetoed the tax bill, lawmakers have the “opportunity to do what they have committed to doing, which was passing a scholarship tax credit program,” Vandiver said.

School Choice Scholarships, an organization that would benefit from the tax credit program, has about 6,000 applicants for 400 scholarship spots next school year, said Executive Director Heather Huddleston.

Huddleston said that though many families are satisfied with their public schools, sometimes one sibling needs a different option. She added that a “significant number” of children who have applied for private school scholarships have parents who are Jefferson County public school teachers.

“We have a number of those families whose parents are JCPS employees, and we’re happy that we’re an option for those families who need it,” Huddleston said.

Teachers unions have opposed the tax credit program, and critics insist the credits amount to a “backdoor” voucher, funneling state money to private and religious schools.

“I would be very curious if it would pass constitutional muster in Kentucky,” said Kumm, the JCPS teacher.

Anna Baumann, senior policy analyst with the leftleaning Kentucky Center for Economic Policy, said the provisions in the tax credit bill would have provided subsidized tuition to families who can already afford private schools.

“It’s never a good time to pass an overly generous tax break, but our current budget situation makes it especially egregious,” Baumann said.

By Mandy McLaren
Louisville Courier Journal

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